Football: Newcastle balked by blunt front line

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The Independent Online
Barring mathematical improbabilities, Newcastle's Champions' League challenge ended with their 2-0 home defeat against PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday. Simon Turnbull gauges the muted reaction on Tyneside.

It is just as well that Kenny Dalglish knows that it's good to talk. Otherwise, the sound of silence would have been deafening at St James' Park late on Wednesday night.

Virtually en bloc, Dalglish's players turned defiantly deaf ears as they rushed through the media interview area outside the main entrance. Only John Barnes was prepared to unseal his lips and answer a question.

"Obviously, we're very disappointed," Newcastle's stand-in captain said revealingly, without breaking stride.

It was left to Dalglish to do the talking, at the obligatory post-match press conference for the two managers. Asked if his team lacked focus up front, he said: "You've got to give credit to the lads who played. They gave everything for the cause."

It was the same in Bilbao three years ago when Newcastle's Uefa Cup "adventure," as Kevin Keegan called it, came to grief with Steve Watson, the then England Under 21 right-back, pressed into service as an emergency stand-in for Andy Cole at centre-forward. And it was the same when Newcastle's Uefa Cup challenge petered out last season, with Robert Lee obliged to lead the attack against Monaco at St James'.

Three times in four seasons Newcastle have struck it unlucky with injury- stricken or suspended strikers in Europe. It did not help on Wednesday that they were also without the central midfield axis customarily provided by Lee and David Batty, but in the continuing absence of Faustino Asprilla and Alan Shearer they continued to look blunt at what ought to be their sharp end.

The players have sent the media to Coventry, in the metaphorical sense, because of what they perceive to have been unfair criticism in recent weeks. But on they themselves go to Coventry, in the physical sense, on Saturday with the Novocastrian natives becoming more that a little restless after a fifth match without a win.

Steve Wraith, who christened his fanzine Number Nine in honour of Newcastle's traditional centre-forward power, said: "The fans' patience is wearing thin. If we want to get back into the Champions' League next season we have to bring in a new striker now or we will have no chance of finishing first or second to qualify."

Asprilla, whose headed hat-trick launched Newcastle's Champions' League campaign with a memorable victory against Barcelona in September, is expected to be back in front-line action by the time the Toon Army visit the Nou Camp on 26 November. The Colombian might well soar to subliminal heights against the Catalans once again, but it already seems the Magpies and their European ambitions have been grounded for another season.