By Graham Hunter
Newcastle United FC manager Sir Bobby Robson's much-anticipated return to the Camp Nou was put on hold by torrential rain on Tuesday - and he will be looking to the heavens again when his side face FC Barcelona in their rearranged UEFA Champions League Group A encounter later today.
Stripped of his two key strikers ahead of the crucial encounter with the club he coached to three major trophies in the 1996/97 season, the question for Sir Bobby is "How do I make this a triumphant return?"
Despite Alan Shearer's suspension, thanks to a retrospective red card after the 4-1 defeat by Internazionale FC, and Craig Bellamy's similar absence, having been sent off in that game, Newcastle have victory in their sights. Sir Bobby said: "We have not come all this way to lose. We have important players missing but my young lads are deeply motivated to win in this incredible stadium. For me it is a proud and happy moment. But our job is to increase our international reputation and prestige. The way to do that is win."
'We have our system'
His dilemma is whether, as most visiting Spanish teams do in the Primera División, to bulk up his defensive midfield and play one striker with a counterattacking philosophy or to use the young and inexperienced pair of 21-year-olds Lomano LuaLua and Shola Ameobi in Newcastle's normal 4-4-2 formation. Sir Bobby hinted at the latter, saying: "We have our system of playing plus our own style - let Barça do what Barça want to do.
Although it was the arrival of Louis van Gaal which removed Sir Bobby after one successful season as coach, the two men are great friends and mutually respectful. With regards to Barcelona's problems in the Spanish league, and their worst domestic record for over 60 years, Sir Bobby argued: "Barcelona, with nine straight wins in Europe are on the point of beating a phenomenal record - I do not understand why the coach should be in question."
Nevertheless, Van Gaal knows he is under deep pressure. Moreover, he is lacking his two first choice left-backs - Gabri García and Fernando Navarro. "It is the worst possible time for Gabri to be injured and Navarro to be suspended," confirmed Van Gaal. "But I have Marc Overmars ready to start having played and trained enough since recovering from his injury last season."
Van Gaal is taking nothing for granted - especially bearing in mind his domestic pressures - and added: "Newcastle are top-level opponents and I want a big crowd to turn up on the night because our players need their support more than ever at the moment. Newcastle's trainer had a record here which not many of Barcelona's coaches can equal. So he merits a great welcome - I think he is a good friend and a fine human being which is the best compliment I can give."
The unexpected welcome Sir Bobby received on Tuesday was an empty stadium and a saturated pitch, but the former England manager said: "We know that we've disappointed a lot of fans. It is expensive to stay out or come back and Christmas is coming but we had to take a sensible decision and there was not much we could do. This was the only decision we could take."
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