Group A
Bayer Leverkusen v Barcelona

Both clubs are struggling domestically, and have saved their best performances foor the Champions League.

Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmoller acknowledged as much when he stated: “Every match in the Champions League is special.

“The team understands the way I feel about these games and will do everything possible to win the match. We must be aggressive and ambitious, get the fans behind us and give them something to cheer about.”

“Barcelona, Newcastle and Inter belong to the best teams their respective countries have to offer. They are all capable of winning games home and away, therefore it is vital we get off to a good start by winning our home game.”

But Toppmoller has injury headaches with Juan definitely out and both Yildiray Basturk and Zoltan Sebescen doubtful. o compound their short-term injury woes, Topmoller is still without long-term casualty Jens Nowotny.

“I won’t talk about my line-up because we want to surprise Barcelona if possible,” he said.

Louis Van Gaal has his own injury concerns with Dutch defender Frank de Boer out with a muscle complaint. Fellow defenders Philippe Christanval and Patrick Andersson are also absent, but he mmost nitable absentee is skipper Luis Enrique who has been ruled out for the next two months after aggravating his achilles tendon injury.

Barcelona were the only side to win all their matches in the group stage but this may be as much a reflection of the quality of opposition faced rather than the quality of football produced by Van Gaal’s men.

Vann Gaal’s approach to the game should become clearer when he bameshis starting eleven. If Kluivert, Saviola and Riquelme are all included then take it as read that the Dutch coach is gambling on kicking off the campaign with a win. Otherwise, Barcelona may be content with a draw, safe in the knowledge that an away point on German soil may be significant come the group’s conclusion in March.

Probable teams:
Bayer Leverkusen: Butt – Sebescen, Zivkovic (Ramelow), Lucio, Placente – Balitsch – Schneider, Babic – Neuville, Brdaric, Bierofka
Barcelona: Bonano (Enke) – Reiziger, Puyol, Presas, Navarro – Mendieta, Xavi, Cocu, Motta – Riquelme (Saviola) – Kluivert

Newcastle v Inter
Just to have got this far is something of a bonus for Newcastle United. Having begun their Champions League campaign with three successive defeats, they bounced back with maximum points in their 3 remaining matches, to sneak into the second phase.

“We have created history,” was coach Sir Bobby Robson’s verdict on “probably my greatest night as Newcastle manager”.

“From a playing perspective it’s marvellous,” Robson added, when asked about tonight’s match.

“This stage is that much more difficult. There isn’t a bad club or side left in the tournament. It’s wildly exciting, we’re in the melting point and looking forward to it. If we play like we did against Juventus we’ve got a chance.”

For Newcastle, Andy Griffin has been suffering from gastroenteritis and faces a late fitness test whileRobson has confirmed that Shay Given, will continue in goal.

Good news for Robson is the likely inclusion of pacy striker Craig Bellamy, who has already terrified Italian opposition once already this season, when scoring for Wales against Italy in a EURO 2004 qualifier. Bellamy, who Robson claimed could only play one match a week, when withdrawing the striker from international duty, plays his second in the space of four days. Hugo Vianna is also expected to return to the side after missing Saturday’s 5-3 defeat to Manchester United. ÿ

Inter also left it late to qualify, needing to avoid defeat in their final match at Ajax to besure of reaching the last 16. However, coach Hector Cuper can always be confident that whatever predicament his side are in, they have, in Christian Vieri and the competition’s joint leading scorer Hernan Crespo, two strikers capable of scoring against any opposition. Not for the first time this season, Argentinian Crespo was the hero in Amsterdam.

Tonight, central defender Marco Materazzi, who missed the derby defeat to Milan, is a probable starter in place of Ivan Cordoba, while Javier Zanetti and Matias Almeyda should also start, having recovered from the debilitating effects of Argentina’s trip to Japan last week. Okan Buruk could replace Conceicao on the right wing, after the Portuguese flyer was singled out for criticism by Inter president Massmo Moratti, following his performance against Milan.

Newcastle have probably gone as far as they could have hoped in the competition but like a fellow unheralded Premier League side Leeds, a couple of seasons ago, they are a team playing without fear and therefore cannot be discounted.

Inter meanwhile, will be looking to avoid defeat, aware that for all their creative shortcomings, they do have goalscoring potential.

Whatever the outcome, a lively atmosphere is guaranteed at St James Park tonight.