Newcastle's year hangs on victory

For Newcastle United the serious business has begun early. Should Chelsea lose their Champions' League qualifier against the Slovakians of Zilina, it will represent more European embarrassment for Claudio Ranieri but Roman Abramovich will still be there to bankroll the club. However, defeat for Newcastle here tomorrow to the considerably more formidable opponents of Partizan Belgrade will have severe financial repercussions.

The club is heavily, if manageably, in debt and the next round of spending depends on coming through against the Serbian champions, who removed them from the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1998 and who are now managed by the formidable figure of the former Germany captain, Lothar Matthäus.

Newcastle will wait until the estimated £15m of Champions' League income is assured before committing further funds to strengthen a team that finished third last season and which their manager, Sir Bobby Robson, believes is stronger than at any time since he arrived at St James' Park in September 1999.

"There are good players around but they are all big money," he said. "We have just seen Chelsea spend big because they have had to buy quality. We are happy with what we've got and it would have to take a very, very good player indeed to tempt us, and that player would cost a lot of money."

Fighting their way through to European football's deepest pot of gold represents a considerably more taxing task than last-year's qualifier against another side from the former Yugoslavia, the Bosnians of Zeljeznicar.

This time Robson has been deprived of the services of his Portuguese midfielder, Hugo Viana, who has had a back injury which may yet prove serious, and Lomana Lua-Lua, who was unable to obtain a visa in time.

Nevertheless, Robson pointed out that with Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy and Shola Ameobi, not to mention the rare sight of a fit Carl Cort, "we have a lot in our own barrel". This does not include the club's controversial summer signing, Lee Bowyer, who starts his six-match suspension imposed in the wake of his assault on the Malaga midfielder, Gerardo, during Leeds' Uefa Cup defeat last season.

"We are confident," Robson said. "The Premiership is a different level to the Yugoslav First Division. It is crucial and terribly important. The players want to be in Europe and, to be honest, we might have done better than we did in the Champions' League last season." Now is the time for Newcastle to prove that point.

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