Woodgate's masterclass has stamp of Beckenbauer and Moore

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The Independent Football

Shay Given did have a couple of fine saves to make, and a scare to survive, when Didier Drogba's left-foot volley crashed off his right-hand post. For the most part, though, the last line of Newcastle United's drastically tightened defence could stand back on Thursday night and admire the view that the 50,000 natives sitting in the stands fully appreciated.

"He's awesome," the Irish goalkeeper said, reflecting on Jonathan Woodgate's tour de force in the goalless first leg of Newcastle's Uefa Cup semi-final against Marseille. "He just seems to coast through games, and that's a sign of a good player. He makes the game look so easy. He's got a bit of the Beckenbauer about him. He's the best I've ever played behind. That's not just blowing his trumpet. When Woodgate plays we're much stronger and a better team."

That much is confirmed in black and white. Back in November, when Woodgate was out suffering from a hernia, Newcastle were thumped 5-0 at Stamford Bridge. This afternoon, with Woodgate settled into the heart of their defence, Sir Bobby Robson's boys line up against Chelsea at St James' seeking a fourth clean sheet in five matches. Their only concession in six hours of play has been a penalty, converted by Mateja Kezman of PSV Eindhoven.

Woodgate has been largely responsible for reducing the flow of opposition chances to a veritable trickle. His supremely assured form has been remi-niscent not just of Franz Beckenbauer but also of Bobby Moore, as his manager acknowledged in the aftermath of Thursday night's central-defensive masterclass. "Moore read the game so well, but you're talking about when he was 29, 30," Robson reflected. "This boy is only 24. He made one little mistake tonight and he turned and went after Drogba; where other players would have tackled him early and brought him down, Jonathan just ran with him, overhauled him, and took the ball cleanly. He's an absolute colossus."

Poetry in motion might be another description. Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, has shortlisted a tribute to Newcastle's No 27 in the Barclaycard Chant Laureate competition. Sung to the tune of "Eleanor Rigby", it begins: "Jonathan Woodgate. Sits at the midst of Sir Bobby's United back four. Closing the door. On visiting strikers." The door at St James' has also been closed on admiring managers. In response to Arsenal's reported interest last week, Freddy Shepherd, the Newcastle chairman, said the Teessider would only leave over his "dead body" - or possibly in exchange for "Henry, Vieira and some money too".

At least Sol Campbell can look forward to partnering Woodgate in Portugal this summer. On current form, it is difficult to see Sven Goran Eriksson overlooking the Newcastle player in favour of John Terry, who should be at the opposite end of the pitch at St James' today. "People can have their opinions about John and me, but I'm not really concerned about that," Woodgate said. "I just want three points for Newcastle."

Such pragmatism is only to be expected from a young man who has been through the mixer in his professional and personal life. A Premiership regular at 18 and an England international at 19, Woodgate was facing a bleak future when he was charged with assaulting Sarfraz Najeib four years ago. There were fears that he might not play again, but since the conclusion of the protracted court case - with Woodgate's conviction for affray, but clearance from a GBH charge - he has steadily rebuilt his career.

He has put the episode behind him in more ways than one, having the following words of Vince Lombardi wisdom tattooed across his back: "The darkest moments of our lives are not to be buried and forgotten. Rather, they are a memory to be called upon for inspiration, to remind us of the unrelenting human spirit and our capacity to overcome the intolerable." It was suggested to Woodgate he had overcome his darkest moment and reached a dazzling professional peak. He quietly demurred. "Of course there's more that I can do," he said. "I'm looking to keep on improving all the time. You're never the finished article in football."

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