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Robson's young guns pass test

Published: Thursday 24 October 2002, 14.27CET
Newcastle United FC's untried defenders shone in a baptism of fire against Juventus FC.
Published: Thursday 24 October 2002, 14.27CET

Robson's young guns pass test

Newcastle United FC's untried defenders shone in a baptism of fire against Juventus FC.

By Luke Williams

Newcastle United FC's 1-0 win against Juventus FC in UEFA Champions League Group E was a triumph for the faith that manager Sir Bobby Robson had placed in a back four with an average age of 22, who had never played together before.

With Nikos Dabizas suspended, Robson brought 21-year-old Titus Bramble into the heart of a defence which leaked five goals against Blackburn Rovers FC last Saturday. Robson also handed goalkeeper Steve Harper his first start in eleven months in place of Shay Given.

Effective distribution
Neither man let Robson down. Playing alongside the assured Andy O'Brien, Bramble contributed towards an invaluable victory that resurrected Newcastle's qualification hopes. Despite two early errors, when he was beaten to the ball by Pavel Nedved and then conceded an unnecessary corner, Bramble soon settled and his ball distribution proved particularly effective. "As good as anyone's in the Premiership," Robson said afterwards. Harper also overcame a couple of early jitters to earn his manager's praise as a "top-class goalkeeper".

Extra dimension
Equally important was Newcastle's ability on the flanks. Robson employed a traditional 4-4-2, with midfield men Nolberto Solano and Laurent Robert creating numerous overlaps with Andy Griffin and Aaron Hughes, their defensive colleagues, thereby adding an extra dimension to Newcastle's play. Indeed it was an interchange between Robert and Griffin from a short corner that led to the winner.

'Keep both flanks going'
"I was pleased with the defence," Robson said. "Bramble grew up and never let us down. O'Brien was solid against [Alessandro] Del Piero and the two full-backs covered and overlapped very well." Robson admitted he was "disappointed not to be ahead at the break", and during the interval he drummed into his players the need to "keep both flanks going".

Davids tenacity
In the first 45 minutes, Juventus, in their usual 4-3-1-2 formation, threatened on several occasions. Midfield anchorman Edgar Davids was the heartbeat of the Italian side, mixing snarling tenacity with an ability to switch the focus of an attack or a passing move. On six minutes, a Davids pass released Marco Di Vaio, only for the forward to pull his side's best chance of the match wide of the target.

Surprise substitution
Davids also released Nedved on goal and it was a surprise when Juventus coach Marcello Lippi removed him at the interval in favour of Antonio Conte. Lippi explained: "Davids was substituted because he has played many games recently. I brought on Conte because he was fresher."

Withdrawn role
However, Conte played in a more withdrawn role than Davids, allowing Newcastle to overrun Juventus in midfield and dominate the second period. After falling behind on 62 minutes, Lippi played all his remaining cards, throwing on Marcelo Zalayeta for Di Vaio and Gianluca Zambrotta for Mauro Camoranesi. With a little more luck, Juventus may even have found an equaliser but Zalayeta's late effort rebounded off the crossbar as Newcastle hung on.

KEY PLAYER: Andy Griffin (Newcastle United FC)
Among a number of impressive performances, the 23-year-old Griffin shone particularly brightly. Not only did he score the winner - just his second goal for Newcastle - but he was ever willing to support Solano further upfield. Additionally, Griffin proved strong in the tackle, with a fierce challenge on Di Vaio setting the tone for Newcastle's whole performance.

Honest and fair
"My hero is Stuart Pearce," Griffin said afterwards. "He used to intimidate players from the off, but I'm only 23 and can't quite do that yet. Tackling is the biggest part of my game. I'm just an ordinary player – I'm honest, I'm fair and I like tackling." Honest and fair he certainly was, but ordinary, no – against one of Europe's leading sides, Griffin looked very much at home.

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