Alan Shearer has a formula when asked what his goals mean to him. Results not personal statistics are important, he says; goals are meaningless unless they lead to victory.
A part of this is true. The blistering penalty which sealed Shearer's hat-trick against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday night brought him within two of the 143 goals Hughie Gallagher scored for Newcastle United, quite a few of which ensured they won the championship in 1927. Jackie Milburn's goals contributed to three FA Cups in the 1950s while so far Shearer has won only plaudits and the undying affection of Tyneside for his efforts.
However, strikers always know precisely how many. Earlier in the season, Shearer remarked quite casually that Les Ferdinand was his favourite partner at Newcastle and recalled that between them they had scored 49 times during their only season together. A quick flick through the Rothmans Football Yearbook revealed this comment to be entirely accurate.
After scoring his first hat-trick in European club football, it was natural that he should seek out the Hartlepool manager, Mike Newell, who was watching from the stands at St James' Park, and then phone his great friend Rob Lee, now part of the financial shambles that is Derby County. The conversations had a point: Newell, playing alongside Shearer, had scored a hat-trick for Blackburn in their final, futile Champions' League fixture against Rosenborg while Lee had done the same for Newcastle against Royal Antwerp in 1994. Shearer, finally, was part of the club and wanted to share his excitement with other members.
If Sir Bobby Robson's side were to make an impact on their return to the Champions' League, it seemed logical that Shearer, the one member of their squad who is a "name" across Europe, would have to play a significant part.
Until the ruined remnants of last season's European Cup finalists arrived on Tyneside, Shearer's contribution had been as a supporting actor. There had been vital headers, stern defensive work and much holding up of the ball under pressure but only one goal, a penalty, dubiously awarded, against Dynamo Kiev.
Leverkusen are almost uniquely wretched for a side that have made it through to the second phase. Last season Nantes found themselves in a similar position, struggling against domestic relegation while still involved in the latter stages of European football's flagship club competition.
The Bretons put up quite a show; but for a late Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty, they would have beaten Manchester United at Stade La Beaujoire while a 5-1 reverse at Old Trafford was harsh. By contrast, Leverkusen seem determined to drift around the continent handing out three points and, crucially, their final act of generosity is likely to be against Internazionale.
Robson has to assume Inter will win in the BayArena as comfortably as Newcastle did, which means that, come 11 March, his team will have to snatch victory at San Siro. Wednesday was their fifth must-win match of this European campaign and Newcastle have proved themselves adept at climbing mountains, but this is the north face of the Eiger.
Robson must privately curse the indiscipline which riddled their display against Inter at St James' Park, which saw Craig Bellamy dismissed in tears before the 10th minute and Shearer given a two-match ban for use of an elbow.
Gary Speed, who will be a pivotal figure in Milan, reckoned that Newcastle played "excellently" against Inter in November but the 4-1 defeat still weighs heavily. "We're looking forward to Inter Milan and Barcelona and, realistically, we are going to have to beat them to qualify. But it is a great opportunity for us; we played really well against them at St James' and the scoreline was not a true reflection of the game. We have got to go for it."
Newcastle have the ability and the confidence to win, the problem will be maintaining their concentration, which even against Leverkusen was prone to lapses. Had Oliver Neuville converted his penalty and Radoslaw Kaluzny aimed his header six inches lower, the match might have finished 3-3, which would have been near-fatal for Newcastle's chances of making the quarter-finals.
They have pulled off improbable results already, but beating Feyenoord in the De Kuip to squeeze through to the second phase after losing their opening three matches had a different degree of difficulty to storming the San Siro. But, as Robson said, Juventus were smugly confident they could overcome an understrength Manchester United side which did not need to win at the Stadio delle Alpi – and by no means are Inter invulnerable.
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