Football: Spanish giants hold no fears for Albert

Barcelona visit St James' Park tonight, giving Newcastle a harsh introduction to the Champions' League. The Toon faithful will be relying on the experience of Philippe Albert, who has seen it all before in his days at Anderlecht. The Belgian defender is r
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Newcastle United may not have been this particular way before but Philippe Albert has. It was back in 1993, in fact, in the good old days when the European Cup did not overrunneth with runners-up, that the Belgian played his first game in the Champions' League. It was, he recalled with a wry smile, supposed to be the kind of baptism of fire he is expected to endure with Newcastle when Barcelona arrive at St James' Park.

"Yes, it was a similar situation," Albert said, recalling the night Milan, finalists in three of the preceding five seasons, lined up in Brussels against Anderlecht. The Milanese masters went on to lift the continental crown that season, bulldozing Barcelona 4-0 in the Athens final, but they came close to being humbled by the Belgian champions in the opening match of their campaign.

"People were talking about by how many goals we were going to lose," Albert said, "but at the end of the game Milan were happy with a goalless draw. We should have beaten them.

"That is why I am looking forward to playing Barcelona. At home, with a fantastic crowd behind us, anything is possible. With good discipline and with a big heart, we are capable of beating anybody."

With poor discipline, and with hearts possibly set on tonight instead, Newcastle were on the suffering end of an upset themselves at St James' Park on Saturday. Not that Albert needs any reminding. It was his failure to mark the debutant Carl Cort which led to the 3-1 downfall against Wimbledon.

To be fair, Albert was due a bad game. As the middle man in a new three- man central defensive formation, between Alessandro Pistone and Stuart Pearce, the man John Beresford christened "Prince" Albert had been in particularly regal form in the opening weeks of the season - the kind of commanding form which once moved Johann Cruyff to hail him as a latter- day Ruud Krol.

Cruyff, indeed, considered the factory worker from the Ardennes such a natural total footballer he twice attempted to sign him for Barcelona. On the first occasion, during the Champions' League campaign of 1993- 94, Anderlecht were unwilling to part with their prized asset. On the second, the following winter, Newcastle were not open to offers for their recent acquisition.

"When clubs like Barcelona are supposed to be interested you do not always know if it is true or not," Albert said. "To be honest, I was flattered to see my name linked to such a big club but even when I was reading those kind of stories I was happy to be a Newcastle player. Hopefully, touch wood, I will be a Newcastle player for the next three seasons."

Kevin Keegan paid 131m to make Albert a Newcastle player - 131m Belgian francs, that is (pounds 2.65m in Sterling) - after watching the counter-attacking defender score for his country against the Netherlands and Germany in the 1994 World Cup finals. Having played against Spain in Italia '90, Albert could be involved in his third World Cup next summer, Belgium being certain of a play-off chance at least. He is unwilling, though, to look beyond Barcelona's visit to Tyneside and the renewal of acquaintance with an adversary from Newcastle's last European campaign.

Anderson Da Silva, in fact, was the last opposition player to score a winning goal at St James' Park before Chris Perry and Efan Ekoku followed up Cort's equalised goal in Wimbledon's victory four days ago. Da Silva did so for a Monaco team that sneaked a 1-0 win on Tyneside before overwhelming Newcastle 3-0 in Monte Carlo in the second leg of a Uefa Cup quarter-final.

The Brazilian centre-forward returns to Tyneside tonight as a pounds 13m new kid on the Nou Camp block and better known to the football world as "Sonny" Anderson. The sobriquet, in point of fact, is "Sony", having been bestowed by colleagues in his Marseille days because a walkman seemed permanently clamped to his head.

"I know he scored at St James' Park," Albert said, "but he didn't impress me. I hope he has the same type of game here. We were unlucky against Monaco because we were without a striker in the home leg. We had to play Rob Lee up front. If we had played with Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand or Tino Asprilla we would have beaten them. They didn't do too much damage here, though we were well beaten in Monaco.

"It is similar now. I'm sure when we go to Barcelona Anderson will be a danger, with 110,000 supporters behind him. But we don't have to be as afraid of him here. I'm sure we will do well against him and I am sure we will do well against Barcelona.

"People are saying that there are not a lot of us who have played in the Champions' League, but it is the same if you are playing with your national team, and we have a lot of players with international experience now."

None more so than Stuart Pearce, whose hamstrung absence precipitated Newcastle's, and Albert's, fall from grace on Saturday. Given some vital Psycho-therapy, the Magpies and their princely Belgian may yet be flying high in Europe tonight.

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