ALAN SHEARER has paid inconsistent team-mate Titus Bramble the ultimate tribute by claiming the uncompromising defender could be the key to making Newcastle United successful again.

Bramble was outstanding at the heart of the defence as the Magpies booked a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup by keeping their first clean sheet in six games against Chelsea on Sunday.

The performance of the gargantuan centre-back throughout the 1-0 win against the Premiership champions-elect made everyone sit up and take notice.

Since making a £5m move from Ipswich in 2002, the occasional fantastic performance has been followed by a number of high-profile blunders from Bramble.

The latest came in Holland last Thursday, when he was at fault for Heerenveen's goal.

Bramble retained his place in the starting line-up for the clash with Chelsea and he delivered a rock-solid performance which brought a ring of truth to Graeme Souness' comments about him becoming a future international.

Keeping Chelsea's attacking advances at bay ensured Bramble kept only his fifth clean sheet of the season, while it was only the second shut-out Newcastle have recorded against English opposition at St James' Park so far.

Shearer believes Newcastle will reap the rewards if they can ensure Bramble maintains a similar concentration level every time he plays.

"There's not much more you can say about Titus' performance apart from him being magnificent. He did not put one foot wrong. He did not make one mistake and when it is like that we have a chance of being successful," said Shearer.

"When Titus plays like that we are always liable to keep a clean sheet. He thoroughly deserved his man of the match award.

"It also helps when the whole squad is available and it was good to have Jean-Alain Boumsong involved again alongside Titus. Boumsong was also very solid. You have to keep clean sheets to be successful and hopefully Sunday will be the first of many."

Newcastle - after losing in two successive finals in 1998 and 1999 - have never got their hands on the FA Cup since 1955, the same year that runaway leaders Chelsea last won the league title.

Sunday's victory over the Blues has raised optimism around Tyneside that this could be Newcastle's year to end a 36-year wait without a trophy, having failed to win anything since the Fairs Cup in 1969.

To end that hurt in the year that the legendary Shearer is due to retire would be a dream ending to a career of one of the most prolific strikers of his generation.

"People keep talking about me winning something in my last season but that's completely irrelevant," said Shearer, who is only three short of Jackie Milburn's 23-goal club record in the FA Cup.

"I want to, and we want to, win something for this club and that would be an ideal scenario for everyone. But that's been the case for the nine years I have been here. It doesn't matter whether I'm due to retire or not.

"We are now going well in the two cup competitions and things are going well but we have to make sure that continues. There was no point winning Sunday's tie if we are going to get knocked out in the quarter-finals.

"We've won nothing yet and neither have Chelsea. It's important for us that we just keep focused but there's no doubting that beating Chelsea was a big result for us."

In a season that has had more downs than ups, Newcastle may be occupying a mid-table league position but are still in the hunt for silverware in both the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup.

Dutch outfit Heerenveen arrive at St James' Park on Thursday aiming to overturn a 2-1 lead held by Newcastle, who are favourites to claim a place in the last 16.

Shearer is looking for a similar atmosphere. He said: "It's been a great week and everything worked out for us in the two games. When we saw Chelsea's team sheet we did get an extra incentive and I'm not being disrespectful to the rest of the players.

"They still had top players but if we didn't win on Sunday we knew we didn't really deserve to be still in the FA Cup.

"I have never heard the crowd like that for a while.

"When the players hear it like that it gives the whole team a lot of confidence. We know that when every team comes here their aim is to quieten it for 25-30 minutes. If they do that teams know everyone gets frustrated. It all went for us and it's a great result."

* Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman has warned Barcelona to expect a Champions League backlash after seeing the chance of FA Cup glory ripped from his grasp.

The Serbian might have been looking forward to another outing in world football's most famous club competition as he headed for Spain on Sunday night had his 24th-minute shot not come back off the crossbar at Newcastle.

Now the Blues will take the field at the Nou Camp tomorrow night desperate to preserve their chances of landing the treble.

Kezman, who was handed a rare start at St James' Park with Didier Drogba recovering from injury and Eidur Gudjohnsen rested, believes they have what it will take to win.

''It's the final before the final because the best teams at the moment are involved and are going to face each other,'' he said.

''They have the best attackers, we have the best defence, so we will see. Our defence is playing brilliantly and I think we also have enough up front to beat them. I think we can take advantage.''

If Kezman gets plays in Barcelona he will hope for a change of luck. During his time in English football the former PSV Eindhoven marksman has scored only three times.

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