As the subject of so much transfer speculation and tabloid titillation, Kieron Dyer seems an unlikely football romantic. Yet by invoking the innocence of youth, he encapsulated the sense of wonder gripping Newcastle as Sir Bobby Robson's team launch the second phase of their Champions' League adventure against Internazionale at St James' Park tonight.
Asked what it meant to be in a group not only with the Milan club, but also Barcelona and Bayer Leverkusen, the 23-year-old England midfielder began by echoing one of Newcastle's most famous supporters. For young players like himself, it was "all about education". But for Dyer, unlike the Prime Minister, it was also a matter of location, location, location.
"The young lads in the squad all agreed that when we were kids in the playground, the three stadiums we all dreamed of playing in were Wembley, San Siro and Nou Camp," he said. "After this group, hopefully I'll be able to say I've played in them all."
Executing a swift body-swerve back to the realm of harsh reality, Dyer added: "We had few kids in the playground at Manchester United on Saturday, which is why we got battered 5-3. This time, there's going to have to be men on the pitch."
Robson, still exuding a boyish exuberance in his 70th year, talked of feeling "wildly excited" about the "fabulous night of passion and tension" in prospect and hoped a sell-out crowd of 51,000 might intimidate even an Inter side who played before 78,000 in the Milan derby last weekend. "We mustn't let them down," he said. "So we'll need a dramatic improvement and reaction from the game at Old Trafford."
His most obvious area for concern is the defence, who were characterised as "a shambles" by Alan Shearer on Saturday. Robson chose his words more tactfully yesterday, mindful that he may have to rely on the same players. To that end, he confirmed that Shay Given would retain his place in goal. Andy Griffin, the full-back whose winner against Juventus belatedly kick-started Newcastle's quest to qualify from the first phase, is doubtful after suffering from gastro-enteritis.
"Griff hit by Inter-itis" screamed the Evening Chronicle. Robson further inflamed the Champions' League fever by suggesting that he might, after all, unleash Craig Bellamy – scorer of Wales' winning goal against Italy in Cardiff last month, but a striker with a recurring knee injury – despite his appearance at Manchester United.
"The medical advice was that Craig should have three days' rest after each game and play only one game per week," Robson said. "But there must come a time when his own opinion dictates whether he sticks to that or resumes normal service. He came out of Saturday's match with stiffness but no pain."
Bellamy looks certain to play some part in the game, while Hugo Viana is also fit and will probably start. Robson felt that Newcastle's need to bolster their League position had left him with little option other than to play the Welshman last Saturday, a decision that contrasted starkly with the choice made by his opposite number, Hector Cuper, before Inter's 1-0 defeat by Milan.
Cuper, who led Valencia to successive Champions' League finals before moving to Italy 17 months ago, rested the £36m striker Hernan Crespo and his captain, Javier Zanetti. The ploy went down badly with Inter's president, Massimo Moratti, and with the Italian media, whose hostility towards the coach was transparent at last night's press conference.
The Argentinian's dourness is supposedly epitomised by his reluctance to accommodate Alvaro Recoba, Christian Vieri and Crespo in the same team. Recoba may be the odd one out tonight, and Robson, who once tried to sign the gifted Uruguayan but ended up with Kevin Gallacher, knows Inter will try to hit them on the break.
The Nerazzurri's run of seven European away fixtures without defeat suggests they will test Newcastle's spirit and concentration, although, against that, Inter have won only once in 10 trips to England since 1961. The pragmatists will say history counts for nothing. Dyer and the new romantics will be striving to prove otherwise.
Newcastle United (4-4-2; probable): Given; Hughes, Dabizas, O'Brien, Bernard; Solano, Dyer, Speed, Viana; Shearer, Bellamy.
Internazionale (4-4-2; probable): Toldo; J Zanetti, Cordoba, Cannavaro, Coco; Emre Belozoglu, Di Biagio, Almeyda, Morfeo; Vieri, Crespo.
Referee: S Bre (France).
GROUP A FIXTURES
Today: Newcastle United v Internazionale; Bayer Leverkusen v Barcelona. 10 Dec: Barcelona v Newcastle United; Internazionale v Bayer Leverkusen. 18 Feb: Barcelona v Internazionale; Bayer Leverkusen v Newcastle United. 26 Feb: Internazionale v Barcelona; Newcastle United v Bayer Leverkusen. 11 March: Barcelona v Bayer Leverkusen; Internazionale v Newcastle United. 19 March: Bayer Leverkusen v Internazionale; Newcastle United v Barcelona.
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