Newcastle face another test of nerve

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The Independent Online
As John Cleese said in the film Clockwise: "It's not the despair I can't stand, it's the hope." Newcastle United supporters, their nerves red raw from the lurches of mood over the last two months, would empathise.

From examining morose depths on Saturday when the championship they crave on Tyneside appeared to be disappearing along with a Queen's Park Rangers' win at St James' Park, renewed belief arrived in the guise of two goals from Peter Beardsley. It is how the players handle it now that perplexes.

"In the last 20 minutes we stopped feeling sorry for ourselves," is how Kevin Keegan described Saturday's finale although his players have performed so inconsistently when the good times have beckoned you wonder whether that is beneficial. Their performance tonight at Blackburn should provide an answer.

Few teams have seemed so psychologically stretched by a championship run-in as Newcastle (although Manchester United pushed them close four years ago) so perhaps the last thing they needed was a late kick-off at Ewood Park enabling them to dwell on what their Mancunian rivals have done against Coventry City in the afternoon.

Certainly they will be meeting a team fully aware of the belittling effects of having Manchester United on their shoulder. Blackburn all but blew it last season and have not looked the same team since. Even on Saturday they gave their manager, Ray Harford, reason to grieve. After losing to Southampton, he said: "Before today we could have gone into Europe, now all we have to look forward to is the next week."

Blackburn at home are a vastly different proposition from Blackburn on their travels, securing 37 of their 48 points at Ewood. Injured pride, too, will urge the champions on against a team aspiring to be their successors. Alan Shearer also should be fitter for his run out at The Dell.

Manchester United will look at Coventry City's win over Liverpool on Saturday from two angles. Knocking a potent threat out of the title race was one thing, but the last thing they needed was visitors to Old Trafford today buoyed by unexpected success. There is also a particular threat in Dion Dublin.

United have managed wonderfully well in recent weeks, winning 14 of their last 15 matches, but without the injured Gary Pallister they are susceptible to the high ball, especially as Steve Bruce looks not to have recovered fully from a hamstring injury.

Against a Manchester City side brimming with anxious intent and Niall Quinn, they got away with it, 3-2, on Saturday. Just. They may not be so fortunate against Dublin, whose aerial threat should frighten the five feet somethings at United's back.

"I think a lot of people looked at our Easter programme," Ron Atkinson, the Coventry manager, said, "and thought we'd be lucky to get a point. We've beaten Liverpool and you never know we might surprise United. Certainly the atmosphere if the dressing-room is one of excitement."

While the championship race appears to have been whittled down to two, Saturday's results, Coventry's included, blurred the picture at the other end of the Premiership. Manchester City are back in the mire again after winning only one of their last nine games, and if they are likely to regret selling the ball-winner, Garry Flitcroft, anywhere it will be at Wimbledon.

Like Coventry, Southampton helped their cause enormously with their win over Blackburn and if they could choose a time to travel to Aston Villa, it would be after the home team has already qualified for Europe by winning the Coca-Cola Cup.

As an extra bonus, Matthew Le Tissier approached the inspired norm of last season. He scored a penalty and provided most of the Saintly threat. "Without a doubt, Saturday was the best game Matt has had this year," Jason Dodd, his defensive colleague, said, "and he deserved all the praise he got in the papers. He played very well at Leeds during the week and against Blackburn he showed what he can really do.

"If he continues to play like that over the last five or six games, then we should not have any problems keeping away from the relegation places."

FA PREMIERSHIP REMAINING FIXTURES

NEWCASTLE UNITED

Today Blackburn Rovers (A)

14 April Aston Villa (H)

17 April Southampton (H)

27 April Leeds United (A)

1 May Nottm Forest (A)

5 May Tottenham Hotspur (H)

MANCHESTER UNITED

Today Coventry City (H)

13 April Southampton (A)

17 April Leeds United (H)

27 April Nottm Forest (H)

5 May Middlesbrough (A)

LIVERPOOL

Today West Ham (H)

16 April Everton (A)

27 April Middlesbrough (H)

1 May Arsenal (A)

5 May Manchester City (A)

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