Defence the key in Robson's plan of attack

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The Independent Online

Sir Bobby Robson will attempt to guide Newcastle United into the Uefa Cup semi-finals this evening by placing his faith in a defence which was once considered to be the club's Achilles heel.

Sir Bobby Robson will attempt to guide Newcastle United into the Uefa Cup semi-finals this evening by placing his faith in a defence which was once considered to be the club's Achilles heel.

There was a time when describing a Newcastle defence as resolute would have been as wayward as labelling their fans disloyal. When Kevin Keegan revived one of English football's sleeping giants in the mid-Nineties, it was attacking verve rather than defensive steel which awakened them from their slumber.

It was thrilling, but ultimately unsuccessful as a porous back-line undermined their offensive threat and left the trophy cabinet bare. Even under Robson it has been the vigour with which his side have gone forward, rather than the way they have played at the back, which has re-established them as Champions' League contenders.

But the old jokes are starting to wear a little thin at St James' Park, where a defence, built around the England centre-back Jonathan Woodgate and the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, Shay Given, has left the Geordies with the best defensive home record in the Premiership.

Their recent performances, in the first leg of the quarter-final tie against PSV Eindhoven, and in the 0-0 draw with Arsenal at the weekend, have been superb against the sort of high-quality strike-forces that once gave them palpitations.

Newcastle will start this evening's contest as slight favourites after Jermaine Jenas's headed equaliser cancelled out Mateja Kezman's early strike in the Philips Stadium last week. But PSV showed enough on that night to suggest that Woodgate and company will face another testing examination.

"It is on a precipice," said Robson, who will have Kieron Dyer available again after a hamstring strain. "We have an away goal, they have to score, but we are not in the semi-final. We have to remain focused on one game. A heavyweight boxer doesn't think about his next fight or he will get knocked out."

With Dyer, Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert likely to create chances for themselves and, perhaps, more importantly, Alan Shearer, Newcastle are always likely to score.

But the painful memories of their Champions' League exit against Partizan Belgrade, when they won 1-0 away, only to lose by the same margin at home and go out on penalties, still run deep.

Newcastle United (probable 4-4-2): Given; Hughes, Woodgate, O'Brien, Bernard; Ambrose, Dyer, Speed, Robert; Bellamy, Shearer. Substitutes: Harper (gk), Bramble, Brittain, Jenas, Viana, Chopra, Ameobi.

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