Asprilla comes under fire

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The Independent Online
K evin Keegan was exasperated. Newcastle United had just been involved in a fabulous 3-3 draw with Manchester City, yet all the press wanted to ask about was Faustino Asprilla's wayward brow and elbow.

It is in the nature of newspapers to highlight the negative, the tabloids to sensationalise, the broadsheets to moralise, but on this occasion the inquisition was led by the BBC, both radio and television.

The videos will be studied by the Football Association this week, as will a report from a linesman, Andy Martin, who witnessed the second incident, to see if Asprilla has a case to answer. On a brief viewing it would appear he has, even if Keith Curle, no softy he, did react as if pistol-whipped on both occasions.

An unfortunate analogy, given Asprilla's penchant for firearms. Or maybe an appropriate one. That conviction, plus other aspects of his colourful lifestyle, were offered as evidence against the Colombian before he arrived. Now he is here it is clear the brochure was accurate; he is a brilliant player, but a combustible one. On Saturday, he made one goal and scored another - yet a sterner referee than Martin Bodenham would have dismissed him in between.

Even leaving aside his temperament ("he's a Latin," Keegan said, resorting to a stereotype for defence, and forgetting those noted South American wildmen, Osvaldo Ardiles and Juninho) there are doubts about his signing.

With ironic, or mischievous, timing, the match programme's "one to remember" feature was Rodney Marsh. Asprilla, it has already been suggested, could upset Newcastle's title challenge in the manner Marsh did City's 14 seasons ago. Marsh was an individualist who, the feature noted, "slowed down the attack with the result that defences had time to regroup".

The same charge can sometimes be levelled at Asprilla, yet he was also at the heart of Newcastle's best counter-attack, the move which led to Philippe Albert's first goal. He certainly adds another dimension, even if his inclusion, at the expense of Keith Gillespie, reduced their attacking width. Yet if Keegan, like Curle, has been given a headache by Aspro, he seems unconcerned.

He was upbeat after the match, and with good reason. Newcastle may only have gained a point but, after the midweek reverse at West Ham, it was important they did not lose.

The way they thrice came back did not suggest a team buckling under pressure, nor did the way they sought victory to the end. Not for Newcastle the unedifying sight of the centre-forward lashing the ball into row E - as occurred with Blackburn last spring.

Newcastle are likely to lose Asprilla for a game or three after the FA's video viewing, but they have the personnel to cope. David Batty is the latest addition and, on Saturday, it was not hard to see why they need him. Batty may be a poor man's Paul Ince, but he still has the ability to provide an often creaky defence with a badly needed shield.

Had he played on Saturday, his prime task would have been to slow down Georgi Kinkladze with some well-aimed kicks (sadly, Bodenham would probably have let him). The Georgian was stunning, even eclipsing Asprilla, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley for skill. Twice he beat a trio of Newcastle men in the space of a backyard privvy, there was a breathtaking back-flick, and a dribble which destroyed Steve Howey before setting up City's second.

Alan Ball has built a system around him similar to the one he created for Matt Le Tissier at Southampton. The defending is left to others - Kinkladze's job is to find space. When City were awful this meant he was wasted as they never had possession. With their improvement, he has blossomed.

If there are many more like him in Georgia, England will have reason to worry when the countries meet in the World Cup qualifiers. Once they have finished trying Asprilla, the FA should save the video for Terry Venables' successor and send copies to the nation's youth coaches. Such skill is all but extinct in English players, not that it was common 25 years ago. If it was, Marsh would not have stood out as he did.

Nevertheless, the first telling dribble came from an Englishman, and an unlikely one at that. Scott Hiley, a full-back plucked from Barry Fry's cast of thousands, began a composed debut with a jink down the left before squaring for Nigel Clough. His shot, diverted by Niall Quinn, put City ahead.

The lead was deserved, for half an hour City outplayed the leaders as they had the challengers last week, passing and moving in the image of their manager. But, like Manchester United, Newcastle gradually wrested control with Ginola prominent - and they did not need a dodgy penalty to level. Albert, breaking from the back, found Les Ferdinand, who laid off to Asprilla. Unlike City, the Colombian saw the Belgian maintain his run and he picked him out beautifully. Albert finished like a striker.

City responded with an equally good goal. Curle cleared to Kinkladze on the left, he ran 50 yards, twice turned Howey and, after Pavel Srnicek saved his shot, coolly chipped the rebound for Quinn to head in at the far post.

This came shortly after Asprilla had elbowed Curle after the defender tried to wrestle him off the ball. Bodenham did not even speak to Asprilla, although he later booked him for dissent. Fourteen minutes later, Asprilla followed up to score after Albert's shot was parried.

Uwe Rosler then steered in Steve Lomas's shot, but Newcastle, conducted by Beardsley, swept back. With nine minutes left, Albert equalised again. So intense was the action that, two minutes after the final whistle, Curle and Asprilla were still tussling for the ball. Asprilla lightly - but unforgivably - butted Curle. Although they later shook hands, it was an unfortunate end to an unforgettable game.

Goals: Quinn (15) 1-0; Albert (45) 1-1; Quinn (61) 2-1; Asprilla (71) 2-2; Rosler (76) 3-2; Albert (81) 3-3.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Immel; Summerbee, Symons, Curle, Hiley; Lomas, Clough, Brown, Kinkladze; Quinn, Rosler. Substitutes not used: Creaney, Phillips, Margetson (gk).

Newcastle United (3-5-2): Srnicek; Peacock, Howey, Albert; Barton, Beardsley, Clark, Ginola, Beresford; Asprilla, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Gillespie, Elliott, Hislop (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (Cornwall).

Bookings: Manchester City Summerbee. Newcastle United Beardsley, Asprilla, Albert.

Man of the match: Kinkladze.

Attendance: 31,115.