Robson's double hurdle for top Gunners

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The Independent Online

As Sir Bobby Robson observed, surveying the mound of European Champions' League rubble which included the remains of Milan, Real Madrid and Arsenal, it's a funny old game, football.

As Sir Bobby Robson observed, surveying the mound of European Champions' League rubble which included the remains of Milan, Real Madrid and Arsenal, it's a funny old game, football.

Who would have thought, nine days ago, that this afternoon's collision at St James' Park would see Newcastle still hot in pursuit of two targets while Arsenal are down to one? Having righted their listing vessel by demolishing Liverpool on Friday, Arsenal will be attempting to extend an unbeaten Premiership run to 32 matches this afternoon and Robson, ever prepared to acknowledge true merit, was generous in his assessment of the London club's achievements.

"Arsenal are obviously the best side in the country," he said, in the afterglow of Thursday night's fighting draw against PSV in Eindhoven which keeps Newcastle very much on course for Uefa Cup glory. He cited the Leeds United team of the Seventies, recalling that as manager of Ipswich Town he would have paid to go and watch Don Revie's team. "The same applies now to Arsenal," he said.

Just in case it was needed, he had a word of caution for his own club. "Arsenal are wounded by the fact that they are out of Europe and the FA Cup." Granted, but having won their last eight home games Newcastle present probably the most formidable hurdle to Arsenal's ambitions of finishing the Premiership season unbeaten. "On our day, if we are performing well, we are capable of giving anyone a game," Sir Bobby warned.

Newcastle performed well enough, nobly at times, to frustrate Eindhoven and give themselves the edge for Wednesday night's second leg of their Uefa quarter-final. As Craig Bellamy observed: "After getting an away goal, all we need now is a 0-0 draw at home." True enough, but Newcastle don't go in for goalless occasions. They have played only three all season, the last of them in January at Old Trafford, and St James' Park has only ever staged one game between Newcastle and Arsenal which failed to produce a goal.

If Arsenal, pulling on the boots for the fourth time in nine days, will indisputably be weary this afternoon, Newcastle have been through draining times of their own. To avoid an overnight stay in Holland, the team undertook a 90-minute bus ride from Eindhoven to Brussels airport and landed back home at 3am on Friday. Robson managed to joke about it, saying: "I won the Dutch title twice for Eindhoven when I was manager but still they wouldn't keep their airport open for me."

Players and staff were given the day off on Friday, and there was only light training yesterday. After a brief work-out this morning, Robson will decide his line-up for the Arsenal match. There remains a doubt over his key midfielder, Kieron Dyer, because of the perennial hamstring problem which kept him out at Eindhoven. There is a whisper that Andy O'Brien, restored to fitness and one of the bench in Eindhoven, will be drafted into the centre of defence at the expense of Titus Bramble in an attempt to cope with the pace of Thierry Henry, provided the great man is not too knackered after his hat-trick heroics.

As he demonstrated in failing to close down Eindhoven's early scorer, Mateja Kezman, Bramble's lack of pace and occasional inability readily to spot danger could be exposed if Arsenal hit the high notes. That said, the central defender overcame his costly slip to play solidly, abetted, and propped up when it mattered, by the excellent Jonathan Woodgate, who increasingly looks an England certainty for Euro 2004 in June.

Woodgate preferred to praise Alan Shearer, his 33-year-old captain. "He's an unbelievable player. The way he leads the line is unbelievable. Sometimes when the ball goes up to him, you're thinking, 'How is he going to get that?' But he gets it."

Bramble, meanwhile, faces the possibility of a video-assisted reprimand for his elbow into the face of PSV defender Remco van der Schaaf, an offence which was one of the many not spotted by the preposterous French referee, Gilles Veissière. "I believe our French friend made an enormous mistake," said Eindhoven's manager, Guus Hiddink, who probably needed to absorb a large dose of salt with that comment, since Van der Schaaf had put the boot into Shearer, generally without penalty, every time he went near the striker, and the Koreans, Lee and Park, that Hiddink brought back to Europe from his spell as that country's national manager seemed equipped to offer even Robert Pires lessons in going to ground.

This afternoon, Newcastle will be required to retain shape and composure as they bid to attain, for the third straight season, the top-four finish which would be rewarded with a place in the Champions' League. Bellamy can in turn offer Shearer a better service than the striker received on Thursday. If not, Newcastle may be pushed to improve on the rush of 18 goals in their last eight outings, since goals prove hard to come by when those two are not on the end of them.

They go into battle, of course, with the full backing of the boss. "My players have performed fantastically," Robson said. "It annoys me a bit when people suggest otherwise, I just wish they would look at where we are and put the whole thing into perspective." It is a perspective offering his club a European triumph this season and a place at the top table next year, as well as a chance to put a dent into Arsenal's limousine as it glides towards inevitable Premiership honours.

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