Football: Newcastle caught in pointless exercise

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The Independent Online
Newcastle opened their European Cup challenge in a blaze of glory against Barcelona in September. It will end with the damp squib of a home game tonight, as Simon Turnbull reports.

The Champions' League has been a point-less existence for Newcastle United since the night that John Beresford twice got behind the great defensive gates of Kiev, 10 weeks ago. Tonight, it becomes a pointless exercise for Kenny Dalglish and his team as they fulfil the formality of their final Group C fixture against Dynamo Kiev at St James' Park.

Having failed to win a point since their 2-2 draw in the Ukraine on 1 October, Newcastle line up with nothing at stake other than the bare bones of pride, Uefa match prize- money and avoidance of the sectional wooden spoon. That will not upset the traditionalists - a club last crowned national champions 70 years ago ought to have no place in a league of champions - but it has left Dalglish with a problem.

The Champions' League was sold to the Newcastle fans as a package; the bulk of the Toon Army invested its faith with one lump sum of hard cash in advance of the three home fixtures. Thus, with a 30,000 crowd in attendance, Dalglish will be under pressure to motivate his players for a dead rubber of a game.

There was uproar on Tyneside a fortnight ago after just four members of the Newcastle squad bothered to acknowledge the 8,000 Geordies who had cheered them throughout an uninspiring display in the Nou Camp. Nothing short of full commitment will pacify the Tyneside punters tonight.

Their faith is in need of restoration, the holy grail of the championship trophy already looking out of reach for another year. At this stage of the previous two seasons, Newcastle were three points ahead of Manchester United. They are now 13 points behind, with their quest for silverware turning into a Mersey mission (Liverpool are at St James' in the Coca- Cola Cup quarter-finals on 7 January, three days after Newcastle visit Goodison in the third round of the FA Cup).

It might have all have been very different, of course, had the injuries suffered by Alan Shearer and Faustino Asprilla not left the unfortunate Dalglish to scheme at home and abroad without an attacking focal point. "It's irrelevant," Dalglish said yesterday, when asked what he thought Newcastle might have achieved in Europe with their specialist strikers in harness.

"Everyone can play great on paper and everyone can manufacture teams in hindsight. But we can only be judged on what we've done."

What Newcastle did before Asprilla's stomach injury was beat Barcelona with a hat-trick of headers by the Colombian, and draw in Kiev (the only fixture the Ukrainian champions have failed to win). After Asprilla's patently premature return for the home defeat against Arsenal last Saturday, though, the South American may be restricted to a substitute's role tonight.

Kiev have a striking asset of their own: Andrei Shevchenko, who scored a hat-trick in Dynamo's 4-0 win in Barcelona and who is reputed to have turned down offers from Manchester United and Milan. Newcastle, too, have been mentioned as an interested party, which explained Dalglish's staunch refusal to even discuss the merits of the 21-year-old yesterday.

"We'd get hauled up for an illegal approach," he claimed. Newcastle's defence might have to be as tight as their manager to keep out Shevchenko tonight.