Princely sum of his parts

Simon Turnbull meets Newcastle's complete defender, Philippe Albert
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The Independent Online
Philippe Albert knows what it is like to step into European football's equivalent of the lion's den. Seven seasons ago, in the quarter- finals of the Champions' Cup, he was at the heart of the Mechelen defence who held out for 90 minutes in the San Siro. Milan needed extra time, and goals by the Marcos - Van Basten and Simone - to break down the Belgian resistance. So when Albert says he does not envy the task that faces Continental intruders at St James' Park, you can be sure he knows what he is talking about.

"It's like hell for the opposition," Newcastle United's central defender said. "Ferencvaros were confident when they came here in the last round and they went home with a 4-0 defeat. At St James', we don't fear any team."

It is, indeed, the opposition who are doing the fretting in anticipation of the next European night at the Toon Army's fortress. Having been held to a 1-1 draw in the home leg two weeks ago, Metz need a victory, or a high-scoring draw, in Tuesday night's return to deny Albert and his Newcastle colleagues a Uefa Cup quarter-final place. Joel Muller, coach of the French League Cup holders, rates his team's chances as "10 per cent". Newcastle's home record in Europe suggests his estimation, Franco-kidology though it may be, is just about right.

This is Newcastle's sixth European campaign, yet only one Continental team have avoided defeat at St James'. That they happened to be French - the Corsicans Bastia, 3-1 victors in a Uefa Cup second-round tie in 1977 - may be a crumb of historical comfort for Metz, but Muller has more tangible concerns. His team lost 1-0 in Bordeaux on Thursday and Robert Pires, his attacking catalyst, was withdrawn midway through the second half. "He seems to be suffering from exhaustion at the moment," Muller said.

That Pires posed a minimal threat in the first leg underlined the extent to which Albert has helped to tighten Newcastle's central defensive screws. At the start of the season, after defeats away to Everton and at home to Sheffield Wednesday, the 29-year-old Belgian was the one held accountable. He may have survived in the San Siro for 90 minutes at least, but he was deemed surplus to requirements for the trip to Sunderland.

It took an injury to Steve Howey to give Albert the chance to prove his true worth. And the distinguished 6ft 3in figure the Newcastle players call "Prince" has looked every bit the 131 million man he was when Kevin Keegan bought him from Anderlecht in the summer of 1994 - 131m Belgian francs, that is.

Whether in tandem with Darren Peacock at the heart of a flat back-four or alongside Robbie Elliott too in a three-man rearguard, Albert's trusty defensive work has been the most impressive feature of the marked improvement Newcastle have shown at the back since Mark Lawrenson's arrival on the coaching staff.

A return to the Belgian team is expected, for the World Cup qualifier against Holland in Brussels on 14 December. More importantly, on this side of Zeebrugge at least, the critics who said he was more effective offensively than in defence have been silenced. "I had my defensive qualities three months ago," he insisted. "I am still the same player."

The princely Albert stared down and smiled. That uneven confrontation with Juninho at St James' four days ago came to mind. There was no argument this time.