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Friday, Feb. 14, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Newcastle hoping lighting strikes twice in Champions League


LONDON -- If a week is a long time in politics, two months is an eternity in the Champions League which resumes after its winter hibernation next Tuesday.

Christopher Davies

When Newcastle United walked off the Nou Camp pitch after losing to Barcelona in December it seemed to be facing mission impossible in its quest to reach the quarterfinals.

The Geordies' loss in Catalonia came after their home defeat by Inter Milan which, like Barca, had six points from two games with Newcastle and Bayer Leverkusen on zero with the top two advancing.

Since then much has happened to three of the four participants. While Inter Milan has consolidated its position as Italy's leading club -- it is currently three points clear at the top of the Serie A -- Leverkusen, like Barcelona, has slumped.

Newcastle, meanwhile, believes mission impossible has been downgraded to mission possible and maybe, just maybe, it can again qualify by the skin of its teeth as it did from the first group stage.

Sir Bobby Robson, who celebrated his 70th birthday Thursday, takes his team to Germany for next Tuesday's match against Bayer with renewed hope even though it will be without its first-choice strike force of Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy who are suspended.

After three consecutive defeats Leverkusen has dropped to fourth from the bottom in the Bundesliga standings, one point above the relegation zone. Klaus Toppmoeller, voted coach of the year in Germany last year after Bayer finished runnerup in the league, German Cup and Champions League final, is clinging to his job as his team battles to stay in the Bundesliga.

Barcelona replaced its unpopular coach Louis van Gaal with Raddy Antic, the former Luton player more famous recently for being the last man to buy Stan Collymore when he was in charge of Real Oviedo.

Barca, incredibly, is also staring relegation in the face and like Leverkusen is fourth from the bottom.

Despite this, the Catalans host Inter on Tuesday where victory would see Barcelona break AC Milan's record of 10 consecutive wins in European football's most prestigious club competition.

Robson cannot understand how his former club has been so impressive in Europe yet dire in domestic football though the manager, who saw Newcastle squeeze into the second group stage with a last-minute winner against Feyenoord, hopes Barcelona's misery extends into the Champions League, not least when it visits St. James' Park on March 19.

Newcastle is fourth in the Premiership after 13 victories in 20 league matches, once again challenging for a Champions League berth.

"This place is not demanding success," said Robson. "It's crying for success."

Newcastle lost its opening three games in the first group stage yet became the first team to go through having gotten off to a 0-3 start. Can it recover from 0-2?

"It'll be harder this time round," said Robson. "The standard is higher in the second stage.

"But we won't give up until it's mathematically impossible. We'll be giving it our best shot."

Newcastle travels to Leverkusen with renewed hope of progressing in the Champions League two months after observers were preparing to read its European last rites.

Manchester United, which plays Juventus next Wednesday and Arsenal, which entertains Ajax the previous night, are still more likely to fly the Premiership flag in the Champions League knockout stages.

Newcastle's away form does not inspire confidence even against hapless Leverkusen but after what happened in the first group stage it would be foolish to write off a team that has already come back from the dead once.

One of the more remarkable statistics in the Premiership this season is that only one manager -- Sunderland's Peter Reid -- has departed. This is the lowest casualty figure in the 10-year history of the Premiership where for the last five seasons the average figure of managerial changes has been five, or 25 percent.

The most likely reason why managing a Premiership clubs has become more secure is the high cost of paying up a lucrative contract. Leeds apparently agreed to a settlement with David O'Leary, who was shown the door at Elland Road last summer, which saw its former manager receive £1 million net.

Glenn Roeder has two years remaining on his contract with relegation-threatened West Ham which (a) could not afford to pay him off and (b) could not have met the demands of a replacement such as George Graham.

Roeder probably earns around £750,000 a year which would make him one of the lowest-paid Premiership managers. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger no doubt collect at least double that figure plus bonuses -- the more you earn, the less likely you are to be sacked.

The best managers can virtually write their own contracts while those, like Roeder starting their first big Premiership appointment, do not have such a strong bargaining position. However, even a small Premiership salary can mean a big payoff at a time when all clubs are counting the pennies.

Compensation or not, we can expect the managerial merry-go-round to gather momentum this summer when Terry Venables (Leeds), Gerard Houllier (Liverpool) and Jean Tigana (Fulham) for various reasons could be moving on.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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