Woodgate's performance gives Newcastle a taste of defensive solidity

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The Independent Football

Some were bruised, some were very weary and Gary Speed's feet were killing him but, collectively, Newcastle United were safe.

The first leg of their Champions' League qualifier in Belgrade went much like last year's in another part of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, Sarajevo. Then, a young, untried team overcame considerable hostility to beat the Bosnians of Zeljeznicar 1-0, a victory they improved upon at St James' Park, and there is no reason to believe Sir Bobby Robson's side will not do the same when Partizan Belgrade arrive on Tyneside later this month.

Speed was correct when he described it as "not a fantastic performance but a fantastic result". Five years ago Speed was part of Ruud Gullit's team which lost 1-0 to Partizan and exited the Cup-Winners' Cup on the away-goals rule.

His captain, Alan Shearer, thought the Serbian champions were actually a better side now than they had been in 1998 but so, indisputably, are Newcastle.

"Maybe we would have lost that game in the past," Speed said. "To come away with a clean sheet and an away goal when we've come under a lot of pressure and didn't play that great shows we've got the strength and discipline there."

Nowhere was that more in evidence than in central defence, an area which has plagued Newcastle, especially away from St James' Park, since Kevin Keegan's day and which, only with the arrival of Jonathan Woodgate, is starting to match the verve shown further up the pitch. Robson described the defender he paid £9m for in January as "a lighthouse" and on Wednesday Woodgate shone brightly on a tense Balkan night. He has barely trained and, crucially, when he tired in the final 10 minutes, Newcastle once more had to fall back on the excellence of their keeper, Shay Given.

"Every game I've seen him in, he's played brilliantly," Speed remarked of Woodgate. "I think he's one of those players who, if you don't watch him every week, you don't realise how good he is. I've been in the game a long time and Woody's probably the best centre-half I've played with."

Although Newcastle were ultimately satisfied with their return to European football's top table last season, where they came within one victory of reaching the quarter-finals, the fact remained that in a dozen matches they only once kept a clean sheet. But for two failures to clear routine balls into the box, they would have beaten Internazionale in Milan and qualified. Had Woodgate been available, they might well have done.

On Sunday, he returns to Leeds, a club he joined as a 12-year-old. His departure triggered the final split between Terry Venables and his chairman, Peter Ridsdale, and with both gone, Woodgate is assured of a standing ovation when he runs out at Elland Road.

It was an interesting night, too, for Craig Bellamy, whose volatile temperament twice blew apart in the Champions' League last season, causing him to miss half of Newcastle's campaign. In Belgrade, with hostility raining down from the stands and on the pitch, he came through unscathed, mentally at least.

"I thought he was fouled every time he got the ball," Speed said. "He handled himself brilliantly out there because there were times when a defender's hand was right in his face. The fact that the referee turns a blind eye to it frustrates him even more but he did well to keep his cool. We need him in the Champions' League."