Solano gives Newcastle vital edge on tense night

Partizan Belgrade 0 Newcastle United 1
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The Independent Football

Before this game Sir Bobby Robson, charmingly and somewhat disarmingly, professed not to know how much money Newcastle would make from qualifying for the Champions' League, but his chairman does. And as his team arrived back on Tyneside in the early hours of this morning, Freddie Shepherd would have done his sums.

The Partizan Belgrade coach, Lothar Matthäus, has enjoyed many triumphs over English opposition but it would be asking a lot of the Serbian champions to beat Newcastle by two clear goals away from home in the second leg of this Champions' League qualifier.

However, but for some agile and athletic goalkeeping from Shay Given, which culminated in an astonishing point-blank save to deny Milan Stojanoski in the final move of the match, this tie might still be in the balance. As they did last season in Europe, Newcastle performed well bar some gaping lapses of concentration.

It would not have been difficult to guess Robson's talk in the away dressing-room as the crowd's chants thundered overhead: absorb the pressure, wait for the break, score, go home. The wonder is that Newcastle achieved their aim with their first shot of any consequence.

That it came in the 39th minute demonstrates much about the cagey, attritional nature of some of the play but Newcastle did what the seeded sides are supposed to do under these circumstances - punish each and every error.

Laurent Robert's cross was meant for Alan Shearer's head but flew beyond his captain and fell perfectly for Nolberto Solano's boot on the edge of the six-yard box. Starting his 200th game for Newcastle, a club he has served with skill and modesty, the Peruvian clipped his shot into the corner of the net. Matthäus would have despaired of such defending.

Before kick-off, Robson had put his arm around the Partizan coach as they walked to the dug-outs in a charmingly paternalistic manner. Both men knew the home side would have to win this tie in Belgrade and would probably have to score quickly to do it.

Robson, who had managed sides in Europe when Matthäus was a 10-year-old boy, had identified the opening 20 minutes as crucial and they weathered the expected storm reasonably enough.

The Partizan supporters are known as "Grobari" or "Undertakers" and last night they had come to see Newcastle buried. They were perhaps not as unremittingly hostile as the last time the Magpies had come to Serbia in 1998, when the imminence of Nato's bombing campaign made every westerner an object of suspicion, but as the sun sank into the Danube, they directed a torrent of abuse down from the stands, mostly at Shearer and entirely in English.

Matthäus might not have bothered with showing his squad videos of Newcastle in action, preferring instead to watch Mad Max films, but Partizan were prepared to test a central defence which last season was often vulnerable away from St James' Park. This match, however, was Jonathan Woodgate's first European outing for Newcastle and throughout he exerted a calming presence - of the sort based on innate ability and class.

Partizan, in truth, tested Given only once before the interval and that was when they had fallen behind. The crowd had been urging Andrija Delibasic, their chief supplier of goals, forward and he was offered the kind of chance he would have swallowed in the Serbian First Division, a ball rolled across the 18-yard line by Igor Duljaj which found him alone with only Given to beat. The Irishman's two-fisted punch ensured he did not.

By the time the second half was a quarter of an hour old, Delibasic was no longer in a position to do anything, hauled back on to the bench, a measure of Newcastle's increasing skill in keeping Partizan at bay. With the away goal safely banked, Newcastle merely had to shepherd the game towards the final whistle, a task made easier by Woodgate's excellence, typified by the way he calmly dispossessed Ivica Iliev as the striker prepared to seize an opening in a stretched defence.

Partizan performed considerably better than they had at this stage last year, when they were easily beaten by Bayern Munich, and showed the spirit that allowed them to come back in both matches to eliminate the Swedes of Djurgardens in the second qualifying round. Given was forced to make another fine save, from Iliev with 10 minutes left, as his defence froze expecting a free-kick.

Had the Serbs taken both chances, they might have had a real chance in the second leg on Tyneside. However, the days when Red Star Belgrade could beat Barcelona in a European Cup final are long dead. Victory at St James' Park would be a triumph to compare to any in Matthäus's career.

Partizan Belgrade (3-5-2): Kralj; Cirkovic, Malbasa, West; Dordevic, Bajic, Duljaj (Drulovic, ht), Ilic, Nad; Iliev, Delibasic (Stojanoski, 60). Substitutes not used: Savic, Rzasa, Zavisic, Cakar, Radakovic (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Griffin, Woodgate, O'Brien, Bernard; Solano (Jenas, 83), Dyer, Speed, Robert (Ameobi, 65); Bellamy, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Hughes, Bramble, Chopra, Harper (gk).

Referee: V Hrinak (Slovakia).