Football: Ketsbaia secures prize at the last

GLENN MOORE

reports from Zagreb

Croatia Zagreb 2 Newcastle United 2 after extra time; Newcastle win 4-3 on aggregate

Temur Ketsbaia won Newcastle a famous victory in the Balkans with a dramatic winner over Croatia Zagreb in the dying seconds of extra time in their European Cup preliminary round second leg here last night.

The ordeal of penalties was looming when Newcastle's hustling midfield summoned a final effort to win possession deep in the Zagreb half and set up Faustino Asprilla on the edge of the penalty area. The Colombian, who had earlier made and converted Newcastle's opening goal, delivered a short pass to his Georgian team-mate, an extra-time substitute for Newcastle, who scored coolly.

The goal was an enormous relief to Newcastle, who had been on the brink of winning the tie in normal time when they were similarly denied by an injury-time goal from Igor Cvitanovic. Newcastle are now through to the lucrative Champions' League while the brave Croats, who were down to 10 men for more than an hour and a quarter, had to settle for a place in the Uefa Cup.

The dramatic finish was in keeping with a game of thrills. There had been a scent of expectation building all day in the squares and bars of Zagreb and the crowd, which had been in the stadium for hours, was fully primed by kick-off.

"Welcome to blue hell" said a banner hanging from one end and, within 30 seconds, Newcastle knew it was not an exaggeration as Silvio Maric stole through their defence to bring a fine save from Shay Given.

The pressure, from Croat players and fans alike, was intense and it forced a rare error from Robert Lee after nine minutes. His miskick gifted Cvitanovic a clear chance but his shot rasped just wide of the far post. Four minutes later Srdjan Mladinic hit the post from 20 yards as he ran on to a pass from Robert Prosinecki.

The flame-haired midfielder was controlling the game and, from his cross, Maric headed just wide before Prosinecki had a go himself, shooting just over.

With David Batty and Warren Barton prominent, Newcastle gradually gained enough possession to launch sporadic attacks of their own and Jon Dahl Tomasson shot over but it was still a surprise when, two minutes from the break, Asprilla's magnificent ball released Tomasson. The Dane advanced on Drazen Ladic and was about to go round the goalkeeper when he was bundled over under challenge from Goran Juric and Ladic.

Amid confusion the Swiss referee, Urs Meier, dismissed Juric rather than the keeper and awarded a penalty which Asprilla converted.

It was a sweet moment for the Colombian, who had endured a physical battering from his markers and a verbal one from racist fans. He had cracked, 10 minutes earlier, and elbowed Dario Simic after a bad foul. Mr Meier, just yards away, settled for a free-kick to Asprilla.

The Colombian's night took a further twist in the five minutes after the break as he missed two good chances and Alessandro Pistone one. The best was created by Asprilla by a one-two with Tomasson before he sprinted clear of the defence, only to roll the ball wide of both goalkeeper and post.

Five minutes later Simic fed Cvitanovic, who went round Pistone and appeared to be past Given when the ball was cleared by a defender.

Barton and Beresford were booked as Newcastle struggled to retain the resurgent Croats, but, with gaps being left in the home defence, it was United who had the better chances but wasted them.

It did not seem to matter but, with two minutes of injury time gone, Maric took advantage of a dreadful pass by Batty and went past Pistone, feeding Cvitanovic, who rifled a low shot past Given.

With Newcastle mentally shattered and the stadium in uproar it was all they could do to hang on. When Given denied Prosinecki with seven minutes left, it looked as if penalties would be the only way to settle the tie. Then Ketsbaia stepped into the limelight.

Afterwards the Newcastle manager, Kenny Dalglish, said: "We deserved to win. Sometimes you need a little bit of luck. But that is too easily dismissive of our performance. The players did tremendously well."

Croatia Zagreb: (3-5-2): Ladic; D Simic, Juric, Mladinic; Saric (J Simic, 79; Tomas, 97), Prosinecki, Maric, Jurcic, Mujcin; Viduka (Petrovic, 74), I Cvitanovic. Substitutes not used: Ibrahimovic (gk), Stefulj, Brlenic, M Cvitanovic.

Newcastle United (5-3-2): Given; Watson, Pistone, Albert, Pearce (Howey, 30), Beresford (Gillespie, 83); Lee, Barton, Batty; Tomasson (Ketsbaia, 101), Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), Crawford, Hughes, Elliott.

Referee: U Meier (Switzerland).

More reports, results, page 23

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