Football: Robson's new Magpies' regime faces toughest test yet

Uefa Cup Third Round
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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO Newcastle's spy in the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday afternoon all Roma fans wanted to do, during the Eternal City's derby, was pass on their respect for Alan Shearer. Since a Lazio team including Marcelo Salas, Alen Boksic and Sinisa Mihajlovic were, at that very moment, being humbled by Roma, this must have been a surreal experience.

But then, despite the departure of Ruud Gullit, Newcastle still appear to be living in a virtual reality world of their own. Shearer himself arrived here fully expecting to be jeered around the pitch the way he was at Vicarage Road, indeed, he sounded as if he was looking forward to it.

Though Bobby Robson has introduced sanity and perspective to the club, and immeasurably lightened the mood, this belief that the globe revolves around St James' Park is hard to shift. The only man who appeared fully cognisant of the task facing them in the first leg of tonight's Uefa Cup third-round tie was the goalkeeper Steve Harper who said he watched the first half of the Roman derby, which Roma led 4-0 after 31 minutes, then switched off because "I could not take any more".

Harper added: "Their two strikers made a fool of the Lazio goalkeeper. I've got to make sure that does not happen to me."

Some might say that since two of Roma's goals followed big hoofs down the middle that most Sunday morning teams would expect to clear, and the others followed abysmal marking, Harper should not be as exposed as Luca Marchegiani was. However, regular Novocastrian observers of United suggest that cannot be assumed.

Robson, who played on the winning side for England in this stadium 28 years ago, said: "This is the most difficult match of our season but we have won twice away in Europe and that gives you confidence. We might have to defend 60 per cent of the time, they have quality players."

Roma, like Newcastle, have rarely achieved the success their fans expect of them. Both, too, have only claimed one European title, this competition in the 1960s when it was still called the Fairs' Cup. However, unlike Newcastle, they have since lifted several domestic titles, including the 1984 championship, and currently stand third in their league.

They also have, in Fabio Capello, as distinguished a coach as Newcastle. Hailed yesterday as "Fabio the Greatest, Emperor of Rome", Capello has only been at the club four months. In that time he has blended a quintet of Brazilians, including Cafu and Aldair, and the Frenchman Vincent Candela with the native attacking talent of Vincenzo Montella, Marco Delvecchio and, most of all, Francesco Totti.

Totti tormented Lazio the way Rui Costa did Manchester United on Tuesday and Newcastle will have to restrict his space. They will also need to curb the attacking runs of Cafu and hope the rejuvenated Alessandro Pistone will be fit to mark him and add his Serie A experience to their cause. Most of all though, they want Shearer to score a priceless away goal.

"A score-draw would be a great result," said Shearer, who missed the now-legendary goalless draw here which secured England's place in the 1998 World Cup finals.

He added, in reference to the abuse he now gets in England, "I wouldn't want to bet against it happening here, it happens everywhere else. I'm not moaning about it, fans don't give bad players stick. I would take it as a compliment as I have always done."

Sadly, and this is not meant to slight Shearer, to judge from the experience of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole in Florence, Nolberto Solano is more likely to receive abuse - merely because of his colour.

Roma (3-4-1-2, probable): Antonioli; Zago, Aldair, Rinaldi; Cafu, Zanetti, Assuncao, Candela; Totti; Montella, Delvecchio.

Newcastle United (3-5-2, probable): Harper; Barton, Marcelino, Dabizas; Solano, Hughes, Lee, Speed, Pistone or Glass; Shearer, Ketsbaia.