Woodgate rues failings as Newcastle bid for riches

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The Independent Football

At the very highest level, professional footballers can be harsh judges. They do not play for memories or souvenirs, they play to win.

So when Jonathan Woodgate was asked to sum up Leeds United's extraordinary run to the semi-finals of the European Cup two years ago, he said: "We got to the semi-finals but we didn't reach the final. We didn't win it so we might as well have gone out in the first round. It was a good achievement but we didn't win anything so what have you got to show for it? When you look back, you think to yourself: 'We didn't get through, we didn't get into the history books'."

This is a man who sets very high standards, which were fully on display in Belgrade a fortnight ago, when he marshalled the Newcastle defence to a 1-0 victory over Partizan in the first leg of this Champions' League qualifier. If he repeats the feat at St James' Park tonight, it will see the club through to the wealth and glamour of the European football's premier club competition.

There is one thing upon which Woodgate and his former manager David O'Leary are agreed. Of all the victories a young, irrepressible Leeds side achieved against the likes of Milan, Lazio and Deportivo La Coruña, none was as important as the first. Asked for a stand-out memory of the 2000-01 season, Woodgate said: "Getting through the first round against 1860 Munich. It was a qualifier, it was tough and it gave us the confidence to go on."

Even with the advantage of Nolberto Solano's goal in Belgrade, there is no reason to think tonight's encounter with the Serbian champions will be any different. "Our chances are better than the result from the first leg would suggest," said the Partizan coach, Lothar Matthäus. "This is the kind of game you win mentally so we have to use our minds first. If we are clever enough and if our confidence is at the highest level, we can achieve a miracle."

Their chances would have been slightly improved by the news that the knee injury Craig Bellamy inflamed playing for Wales in Serbia last week will keep him out of action at least until Newcastle go to Everton on 13 September. .

Despite their poor display in Saturday's defeat by Manchester United, the Newcastle manager, Sir Bobby Robson, is determined to keep faith with Shola Ameobi, whose performances in the Champions' League last season, especially in Barcelona and Leverkusen, have shown sparks of real talent.

"I had him in my office on Monday morning, I knew he was down," Robson said yesterday. "But I like Shola, I think he has made big strides. He's a difficult guy to handle and it's up to him to do better for the public. If I didn't play him, it would knock the kid back."

This will be Robson's 200th game in charge of Newcastle and whether this is won will probably determine the course of the rest of his reign. Should Matthäus achieve his miracle, the financial implications at St James' could be ruinous. Should they qualify, he can plan the next stage of his beloved club's advancement.

Then pondering the pressure imposed by Newcastle's finishing position in last season's Premiership, he adds with a smile: "Having got to third we face the most difficult step of all, but then if we finish first, you people will want us to finish plus two."

Newcastle United (probable 4-4-2): Given; Griffin, Woodgate, O'Brien, Hughes; Solano, Dyer, Speed, Robert; Ameobi, Shearer.

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