Football: Talented Croats have no fear of Newcastle

It was a small but particularly pertinent pause for thought on Kenny Dalglish's part. "I don't know if they'll be frightened," the Newcastle manager mused when asked whether his team's opponents in the Champions' League qualifying round tonight would be filled with trepidation about their trip to Tyneside.

St James' Park certainly has been a formidable fortress for the Toon Army on European nights: only twice have Continental visitors managed to survive defeat there. But, then, there are real armies and real fortresses in a place called the real world beyond football's field of dreams.

The players of Croatia Zagreb, who stand between Newcastle United and the promised land of the Champions' League proper, needed no reminding of that when they ventured to Belgrade in the preliminary round last month. Entering the airport terminal was considered too risky; they were hurried under police escort directly from the runway to their hotel, where they were guarded by 12 officers, each one carrying a metal detector.

So it is fairly safe to assume that facing Newcastle at St James' will not be a fearful prospect for the Croat champions, who escaped from the Serbian "pit of hate", as one newspaper described the atmosphere in Belgrade's Partizan Stadium, with a 1-0 deficit before winning the return leg 5-0.

The triumph in Zagreb was hailed as "a great victory for Croatia" by Franjo Tudjman, the president (and the club's chief patron), who cut short a meeting with Robin Cook, Britain's foreign secretary, to attend the match. President Tudjman proclaimed his beloved boys could "beat anyone in the whole of Europe" and while that remains to be proven, Dalglish is wary of the threat they pose.

"Zagreb are a right good side," he said, citing Robert Prosinecki, the midfield playmaker who played for Real Madrid and Barcelona after prompting Red Star Belgrade's 1991 European Cup success, to illustrate the quality in the opposition ranks. The Croats also have Silvio Maric and Dario Simic, 21-year-olds who have signed pre-contracts with Juventus and Milan respectively, and Igor Cvitanovic, on Bryan Robson's wanted list before Fabrizio Ravanelli was lured to Teesside.

Cvitanovic is noted for his pace, an attribute Dalglish chose to highlight yesterday in the ace, disguised as a joker, in his own playing pack. "He's not as daft as he'd lead you to believe," the Newcastle manager said of Faustino Asprilla. "He always looks shattered, even when he's lining up for the team photo. But I wouldn't like to race him for my wages."

Three times a European Cup winner as a Liverpool player, Dalglish has yet to savour victory in a European tie as a manager. He might not venture his wages against the Croats keeping him waiting again tonight.

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