Seconds out as Webster and Hartson lock horns again

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The Independent Football

Lennox Lewis may have departed the scene, but there are two heavyweight contenders who will keep the Millennium Stadium enthralled on Wednesday night. In the red corner, the pride of Swansea, John Hartson; in the blue corner, Scotland's up- and-coming Andy Webster.

This is a return bout. The pair tangled four weeks ago at Tynecastle during a contest between Hearts and Celtic. Webster landed on the floor, Hartson landed in trouble.

It is ironic that Wales and Scotland have avoided each other over the last decade with the zeal that some boxing champions apply to their nearest challengers, and now the friendly will be stalked by the Hartson-Webster affair.

Craig Levein, the Hearts manager, claimed Hartson had used an elbow on Webster in Celtic's recent win there, and used club video footage to state his case. In Hartson's defence, Martin O'Neill said the arm in the pictures belonged to Webster.

Webster will almost certainly be marking Celtic's Welsh striker on Wednesday. Levein feels that the 21-year-old is now starting to punch his weight - in the nicest possible sense - at international level after an uncertain time in a Scotland shirt last season.

Webster already has half-a- dozen caps, illustrating the dearth of experienced defenders available to Berti Vogts, who threw the Hearts player in at the deep end last June in the Euro 2004 qualifier against Germany on the strength of his club partnership with Steven Pressley.

The contrast with his boss could not have been greater. It took Levein, a composed and clever defender with Hearts in the 1980s, years before he graduated to the Scotland side, waiting patiently until men such as Alan Hansen, Alex McLeish and Richard Gough left an opening. Levein won only 16 caps, but he began at the top by helping to beat Argentina and played in the 1990 World Cup finals: he was on his way to appearing in Euro 96 too, until injury forced him to retire before the tournament started.

Levein unearthed Webster three years ago as a raw but robust teenager at Arbroath. He took him to Hearts and moulded the youngster, even if he had to be cruel to be kind.

"I've been quite hard on him and have been on at him constantly about the defensive side of his game, but he's improved enormously," reflected Levein, whose side face Hibernian today. "He looks far more composed on the ball and he's got a great range of passing. At Hearts we've seen that for a long time in training, but he's now got to transfer that into the Scottish Premier League.

"I think there's so much improvement left in him and I'm delighted with his progress so far. He has the physical attributes as well, he's a big lad and quick, which is what you need in a centre-half.

"Andy was thrust into the Scotland set-up last year when he was still very young and inexperienced, so it was a huge test for him mentally. He had to prove he could handle it, and when he wasn't in the team it was up to him to show how much he wanted to get back there, which I think he's done. If Berti Vogts phones me to ask about Andy, I'll tell him we have a far better player now than this time last year."

The last time Scotland went to Cardiff was in 1985. That night, Jock Stein, their manager, died in the tunnel after a heart attack watching the World Cup qualifying decider between the pair, which took Scotland to the finals in Mexico. It was 1997 before the relationship was renewed, with Wales winning at Kilmarnock in a friendly.

There are likely to be no punches pulled on Wednesday by two teams eager to erase the pain of losing in the Euro 2004 play-offs.