Football: Magpies ready for the elite

Glenn Moore on the Champions' League challenges that lie ahead for Kenny Dalglish and Newcastle
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The Independent Online
He was the returning hero, the man whose goal late Wednesday night could be worth pounds 10m to Newcastle, but the formalities still had to be observed.

Temur Ketsbaia may have eluded Croatia Zagreb's defence to score the aggregate winner that put Newcastle United into today's Champions' League draw, but immigration officials were harder to evade when the team returned in the early hours of Thursday morning. The Georgian cut an incongruous picture as he stood alone crouched over an entry form, passport in one hand, pen in the other, his team long gone.

The scene could not have been more different from that in the Maksimir Stadium six hours earlier when Ketsbaia was mobbed by his team-mates after earning Newcastle a 2-2 draw and 4-3 aggregate victory in their European Cup preliminary round tie.

Ketsbaia, signed on a free transfer from AEK Athens in the summer, said as he waited for his baggage: "I can hardly remember the goal but it was a great moment for me and the club. I was expecting the game to go to penalties and it would have been very difficult for us as they had a psychological advantage."

Croatia had forced extra time with an injury-time aggregate equaliser and Ketsbaia added: "I cannot say how we will do in the Champions' League until the draw - but there will be teams in it who are not as good as Croatia Zagreb."

Uefa's seeding system, and the extension of the Champions' League to non-champions with six groups, makes it very difficult for Newcastle to look beyond Christmas and the end of the group stage. Newcastle could find themselves paired with Juventus, Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg and even a best case scenario would group them with PSV Eindhoven or Monaco. As only the group winners and second best-placed runners-up qualify, the size of Newcastle's task is obvious.

Whatever the draw, the great bonus of the Champions' League is a guaranteed six matches. While the shareholders will like the gloss that gives to the bottom line, to Kenny Dalglish it means he and his team now have time to expand their European education.

As Manchester United have come to realise, European football has its own disciplines and demands. It is not an arena to be taken by storm but one which has to be conquered by experience.

Newcastle had an early lesson in that three seasons ago when, having thrashed Antwerp 10-2 on aggregate, they raced to a 3-0 lead over Athletic Bilbao in the next round of their Uefa Cup campaign. It seemed too easy - and it was. The Basques pulled two goals back at St James' Park as Newcastle went recklessly forward and completed their comeback in Spain.

Newcastle's team has undergone considerable reconstruction since then, but watching them on Wednesday there were times when it seemed that, however hard Kenny Dalglish works on his team, the spirit of Kevin Keegan's side refuses to go away. They continually had chances to score but failed to take them, while similar laxity in defence allowed Zagreb to come within seconds of taking the tie to penalties.

"We'll learn from that and from the first leg," said Shay Given, the 21-year-old goalkeeper who was making his European debut in the tie. "It's a big step for me. In a year I have gone from Pontins League to Champions' League, and it was an unbelievable night.

"We were devastated at the equaliser but Kenny Dalglish got us going again," the Irishman added. "He told us to lift our chins and get into them. He has been there and done it and that's a great help"

The Newcastle manager did win three European Cups as a player with Liverpool - but this was the first time he had successfully completed a European tie and he is also learning. Newcastle have the experience of John Barnes and Ian Rush -another former European Cup winner - available for the Champions' League. Barnes' ability to retain possession and control the pace of a game may be particularly useful as Newcastle step up in class.

One team Newcastle will not face in the group stage is Manchester United, as Uefa is keeping teams from the same country apart. Both clubs will have to kick off their group games at 7.45pm, and ITV will regionalise its coverage.

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