Those who questioned the point of the Uefa Cup had their answer yesterday. Celtic v Barcelona, Thursday 11 March, Parkhead, Glasgow, accompanied by the acme of understatement from Martin O'Neill: "I don't think we will have any problems selling the game."
An encounter between two clubs with perhaps the widest fan bases in world football in the fourth round of the Uefa Cup gives the competition a new edge. Gone, however valiantly they fought, are the Lokerens, the Valerengas and the Teplices. Between them, the remaining 16 clubs have appeared in 28 European Cup finals.
Newcastle United's record is more modest: a Fairs Cup 35 years ago which remains their last piece of silverware. The manner in which they stumbled to victory against Valerenga, a team fortunate to have escaped relegation from the Norwegian First Division, hardly suggested they would add to it.
The 3-1 victory at St James' Park on Wednesday night did not just paint a flattering portrait of the tie, it was a wholesale facelift. To their credit, neither of the Geordie nation's two directors of football, Sir Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer, attempted to disguise the problems. The Newcastle manager remarked that in the first half against Valerenga his side had "been playing to go out of the competition". His captain was just as forthright.
"There is no lack of effort or work-rate or determination or courage - we are just not playing great football," Shearer said. "It is the big boys that are in the competition now. Without a doubt we are aware we have to step up a gear. Our aim has to be to win the competition. We have to try to take a leaf out of Celtic's book. They got to the final last year, so why can't we?"
There are many answers to that point but in terms of the draw, Newcastle's path to the semi-finals is less steep than either Celtic's or Liverpool's. Real Mallorca, whom they play in the fourth round, are fourth from bottom of La Liga, although they have won each of their away fixtures in the Uefa Cup thus far. Should they win over two legs, then they will meet either Auxerre or Robson's former club PSV Eindhoven in the quarter-finals. Should Celtic defeat Barcelona, they will face either Villareal or Roma.
Since the draw has been made all the way to the final in Gothenburg, there could, theoretically, be a Liverpool v Newcastle semi-final, although accommodation and coaches should not be booked just yet. Liverpool's reward for a pleasingly trouble-free victory in Sofia is Marseilles, whose goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, will be guaranteed a stinging reception at Anfield.
Like Shearer, the Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia expressed his conviction that his team could and should do better, especially since they are due to encounter either Internazionale or Benfica in the quarter-finals. "The boss [Gérard Houllier] has taken an awful lot of unfair stick because of the way the players have performed but what has happened on the pitch is our responsibility, not his."
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