Jose Mourinho, the Barca scout in the 36,000 crowd, had reason to be encouraged by what he saw. Twice the Newcastle defence played set-piece statues, allowing Wimbledon players to pick off the easiest of goal-scoring headers. Then Efan Ekoku fired the third that sealed Newcastle's fate.
It was the first time the Champions' League hopefuls had been beaten at home since the last European night at St James', when Sonny Anderson scored for Monaco in March. The Brazilian will be back on Tyneside on Wednesday, as pounds 13m worth of a Barcelona squad which has been officially valued at pounds 400m. Wimbledon found their winning touch yesterday courtesy of two homegrown products, Carl Cort and Chris Perry, and Ekoku, at pounds 900,000 a rare luxury item in Joe Kinnear's low-budget brigade. "Victories don't come any sweeter than this," Wimbledon's breadline boss crowed. "It was one of the best performances since I've been at the club."
Kenny Dalglish saw it differently, and with good reason. "Without being disrespectful to Wimbledon," he said, "we contributed to our own downfall. But it won't affect the way we approach Wednesday night." The Newcastle manager warned in his programme notes: "When the first whistle blows Wimbledon are potentially as dangerous as Barcelona." But his defenders failed to recognise the imminent aerial threat when Neil Ardley clipped the ball into the Newcastle goalmouth two minutes after the opening blast of Mike Reed's whistle.
The unchallenged Cort, with just one substitute appearance behind him, could scarcely believe his good fortune as he planted a firm header past the stretching Shay Given. It was not the 19-year-old forward's first goal in senior football but it made a greater impact than the one he scored at Sincil Bank in April, on loan to a Lincoln City team beaten 3-1 by Wigan. The Toon Army was temporarily silenced.
Newcastle started without the leader of their forward line, despite having gone to elaborate lengths to ensure Faustino Asprilla was not delayed in transit from World Cup qualifying duty in Venezuela. The Colombian had been flown by private jet from Biggin Hill at lunchtime and rushed from Newcastle airport by police escort but Dalglish chose to keep his South American maverick alongside him on the bench until the final 25 minutes. Instead, Ian Rush assumed pole position up front, and the veteran Welshman and the debutant John Barnes fashioned the few half-chances Newcastle squandered before they drew level in the 31st minute.
Neil Sullivan saved Keith Gillespie's angled drive but failed to hold on to the ball. Warren Barton, salvaged from the non-league scrap-heap by Wimbledon and sold to Newcastle for pounds 4m, was quick to bite the hand that once fed, lashing in from close range. Newcastle, though, were unable to exercise their customary home stranglehold. Two minutes before the hour-mark they allowed Wimbledon to get ahead again. From Alan Kimble's corner, Perry rose unchecked to head in at the far post.
Ekoku delivered his coup de grace with quarter of an hour remaining, twisting Alessandro Pistone first left, then right before crashing a right foot shot into the roof of the Newcastle net. "I think he turned Pistone's shirt inside out," Kinnear ventured. Newcastle will be hoping to avoid a similar fate on Wednesday night.