Inspired Asprilla repays faith

Mixed fortunes for Tyneside: New signing heightens Keegan's title ambition as the Newcastle rugby dream fades away; Middlesbrough 1 Beresford 37 og Newcastle United 2 Watson 74, Ferdinand 78 Attendance: 30,011
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THERE was, after all, nothing in the rumour that Faustino Asprilla would turn up at the Riverside Stadium yesterday and watch his new colleagues from a seat in the stands.

He was there all right, on the substitutes' bench until deep in the second half. But for the final 23 minutes, quite compellingly, he was on the pitch. Within five minutes he had suffered his first foul in English football and within six he had entirely changed the course of Newcastle's fortunes in the match.

Maybe there was some defensive frailty involved but the pounds 7.5m Colombian, whose lifestyle is apparently as exotic as his name, exposed it mercilessly. On the left-hand edge of the area he taunted the Middlesbrough defender SteveVickers by switching the ball between left and right feet. Eventually he spotted his opening, went past and delivered the sweetest of crosses.

The unattended Steve Watson headed the equaliser, but the charge towards Asprilla by his new colleagues left nobody in any doubt who was responsible.

The result was probably inevitable after that. Each time Asprilla received the ball he threatened to wreak embarrassment on some poor soul in the opposition ranks. Languid, almost awkward of movement, he was also deceptively swift, thrillingly skilful and marvellously balanced.

He was not directly involved in the move which led to Newcastle's second goal, Les Ferdinand firing a stuttering shot beneath Gary Walsh's body, but the mark he left on proceedings was indelible.

It was every bit as stirring as the occasion earlier this season when the Brazilian, Juninho, made his debut for Middlesbrough at the Riverside. For a ground in its first season it already possesses a rich history. Throughout long periods of the match Juninho indeed offered several pertinent reminders of his pedigree. That Middlesbrough took the lead after 37 minutes was largely due to his harrying on the left. The cross, low and close to goal, was nudged into the net by the Newcastle full-back John Beresford.

With Juninho remaining at his most busily incisive Middlesbrough took the game excitingly to the Premiership leaders in the opening 20 minutes of the second half. Twice, Nick Barmby was put in the clear, first thwarted by Pavel Srnicek's splendid save, leaping backwards to his right to palm over, and then by his own inaccuracy.

If there was a South American success story to be related it seemed clear that its hero would be the smart little Brazilian. But with the game slipping away from Newcastle, Keegan, as he put it later, looked behind him in the dug-out, saw his new signing and thought he might do the trick.

"At half-time," he said, "I have taken a couple of Asprillas myself," thus getting in early with the first of what is bound to be a long line of jokes the player already dubbed "Tino, Tino" by the Newcastle supporters.

The player, whose transfer was only completed late last week after some prolonged concern about the state of one of his knees was finally resolved, arrived at Teesside airport at 11am yesterday morning after his work permit was granted on Friday afternoon.

Keegan gave him the chance of starting the match but the pair eventually decided against it because of Asprilla's lack of matches in Italy this season.

His 23 minutes were enough to turn the match for his side. As Keegan said, the Colombian had paid back just a small part of his fee. It would be no surprise at all if before the season's end he signs a couple of high calibre Venusians.