A BEAMING Graeme Souness last night praised his players for keeping their cool as Newcastle's UEFA Cup clash with Olympiacos descended into chaos in the Greek capital.

An already volatile home crowd were incensed when referee Arturo Ibanez sent off Olympiacos full-back Grigoris Georgatos after just 11 minutes, and their mood became even more furious when Thanassis Kostoulas joined his compatriot in the dressing room in the closing stages of the first half.

Souness' players were forced to walk a fine line after the interval, with the home crowd baying for blood and showering the field with a host of missiles, one of which hit substitute Charles N'Zogbia as he walked off at full-time.

But they kept their cool as goals from Alan Shearer, Laurent Robert and Patrick Kluivert earned a 3-1 win that should almost certainly see the Magpies reach the last eight of the UEFA Cup for the second season in a row.

"I'm extremely proud of them," said Souneswho will now turn his attentions to another crucial knock-out clash with Newcastle facing Tottenham in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup on Sunday.

"We had to be very disciplined. In the second half, maybe we were nervous and not as aggressive as we normally would have been.

"But we knew we could find ourselves down to ten or even nine men. That's why the second half didn't excite me in the way I thought it would. That's why we didn't go after them in such an aggressive manner and kill the tie off.

"Sendings off can have an influence on both teams. Our great concern was we felt, with the pressure from the crowd, there was a chance we might get a red card."

The result leaves Newcastle in a fantastic position ahead of next week's second leg at St James' Park.

Brazilian striker Rivaldo is a big doubt for that game after injuring his leg in an early tussle with Titus Bramble last night but, even if the World Cup winner pulls through, his side will need to score three goals to have any chance of keeping their European hopes alive.

Souness is far too wily to take Wednesday night's game for granted but, despite stressing that the tie was not over, the Magpies manager underlined his delight at becoming the first boss to leave Olympiacos' rebuilt Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium with a win under his belt.

"I've been in professional football for 37 years and nothing is over until it's over," he said. "There's still a job to do in the second leg. But they have not lost a game here so you've got to be happy with what we've achieved.

"We were disciplined, we had to be. We knew it would be an atmosphere somewhat different to what we're used to but they all handled it well.

"We have put ourselves in a very strong position for the second leg - but that's all. Nothing has been decided here."

Olympiacos boss Dusan Bajevic was understandably unhappy with the two red cards meted out in last night's game, but Souness felt that both were fully justified.

"I've only seen the first one from one angle," he said. "But it was definitely a penalty and, if he was the last man, he had to go. For the second one, the two yellow cards were correct.

"Even before the sending offs, I was pleased with the way things were going. We were comfortable and we were confident of getting a result. Who can say what would have happened if it had stayed 11 against 11?"

* AZ Alkmaar continued their tremendous form this season by recording a superb 3-1 win over Ukrainian league leaders Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of their UEFA Cup Round-of-16 clash.

The Dutch side, second in the Eredivisie, went ahead when striker Robin Nelisse headed home a corner in twhe 27th minute.

But having missed a penalty through Darijo Srna on the half-hour, the hosts restored parity thanks to Brazilian midfielder Francelino Matuzalem on the stroke of half-time.

Defender Joris Mathijsen popped up in the 50th minute to reclaim the lead for AZ and Kenneth Perez's penalty gives the Dutchmen a big advantage.

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