Football: Vintage Asprilla does the trick for Newcastle

Newcastle United 3 Barcelona 2
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The Independent Online
In football, one man's misfortune is another's opportunity and Faustino Asprilla last night took the chance offered by Alan Shearer's broken leg like a starving man at a smorgasbord.

Having already won Newcastle a place in the Champions' League with his performance in Croatia, he produced a virtuoso display of forward play to tear mighty Barcelona apart. His 22-minute hat-trick left Barcelona facing humiliation in front of a rampant St James' Park. That they rallied and almost forced a draw was an indication both of their quality and Newcastle's achievement.

Asprilla scored after 26, 30 and 48 minutes. The first was a penalty he won himself, the others headers from excellent crosses by a rejuvenated Keith Gillespie. Those two were outstanding as was Robert Lee, an inspiring captain who stirred and steadied his men.

They needed a fourth hero - Shay Given, the goalkeeper. Having apparently won the game, Newcastle let Barcelona pen them in their area and, after 72 minutes, Luis Enrique pulled a goal back. Rivaldo then hit the bar and was twice brilliantly denied by Given before, with three minutes remaining, Luis Figo scored from the edge of the area. Nerves were shredded as the horrifying prospect of another Newcastle collapse loomed but this time they survived.

They deserved to; they may not be champions but this was a champion show on their Champions' League debut. Until they surrendered space late on, they had dictated the tempo with Asprilla, Gillespie and Lee making quality players like Miguel Angel Nadal, Sergi and Ivan de la Pena look ordinary.

A team-mate recently said that, with Asprilla, you can tell from his first touch if he is going to have a good game or a bad game - there are no in-between games with Asprilla. Last night, his first touch was a fine one, it took him past Michael Reiziger and the Dutchman brought him down.

Five minutes later, he combined with John Barnes to set up Jon Dahl Tomasson only for the Dane to waste the chance. He was just as negligent when Gillespie sped down the right and carefully picked him out with a deep cross.

David Batty, for a foolish foul on Luis Enrique, and De la Pena, for an incident with Lee, were booked as the sides duelled for supremacy but nothing disrupted Asprilla's verve. Only Nadal's excellent tackle prevented him breaking clear after 18 minutes and there was no one to block his path when Tomasson set him free soon after. He rounded Ruud Hesp only for the goalkeeper to bring him down.

Asprilla ignited the night with a successful conversion and the ground was still rocking when, on the half-hour, he headed in Gillespie's cross following Watson's quickly-taken free-kick. Newcastle, almost disbelievingly, exploded in joy.

A half-chance for Rivaldo reminded everyone that there was an hour to go, but Lee went closer at the other end. Rivaldo, who was exempt from Barcelona's general sloth, also brought the first real save from Given after 47 minutes but the next attack was more typical of the night: Gillespie again beat Sergi on the half-way line and dashed away with the full-back in pursuit. It was a fruitless chase; by the time he caught the Ulsterman, the ball was fizzing towards the near post where Asprilla, watched by Nadal, headed it in.

Minutes later, Asprilla almost scored again from a near-identical move before duping Reiziger and forcing Hesp to save. Then came the Catalan revival with Given denying Rivaldo and Nadal before Luis Enrique's goal, chested in after Rivaldo had freed Figo on the right, set the nerves jangling.

"Are you watching Sunderland?" the Toon Army had sung at the apex of their joy. Despite being flushed with the success of beating Bury on Tuesday, one doubts they could bear to turn the television on. If so, they missed a classic.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Barton, Watson, Albert, Beresford; Gillespie, Lee, Batty, Barnes (Ketsbaia, 80); Tomasson (Peacock, 77), Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Howey, Rush, Pinas, Hughes, Srnicek (gk).

Barcelona (1-3-4-2): Hesp; Celades; Reiziger, Nadal, Sergi; Figo, De la Pena, Amunike (Ciric, h-t), Rivaldo; Enrique, Anderson (Dugarry, 55). Substitutes not used: Abelardo, Amor, Pizzi, R Garcia, Busquets (gk).

Referee: P Collina (Italy).