Shearer reaches pinnacle again

Derby County 0 Newcastle United 1 Shearer 76 Attendance: 18,092
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The Independent Online
Manchester United may be no friends of Newcastle United, but their victory over Liverpool yesterday gave their other great rivals the chance to go top of the Premiership for the first time this season, and it was taken with a late strike from Alan Shearer that capped an outstanding week for the world's most expensive footballer.

There is nothing new, of course, about Newcastle looking down on the rest of the pack. That is how it was for most of last season. This time round, however, it feels different. Two defeats in their first three matches required them to ask some tough questions of themselves, and in recovering with a run of six successive Premiership victories, one better than they ever managed in 1995-96, they have displayed a hard-headedness that was perhaps lacking previously. "No one calls us the entertainers any more," said Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, not in the least bothered by the fact. "We're the grinders.'' Certainly, this was a result that owed more to graft than flair. A vibrant Derby took some containing, and that Newcastle managed it was thanks to a combination of Pavel Srnicek's reactions in goal and the willingness of the midfield to put as much emphasis on covering in front of the back four as they did on creating openings in attack.

It may be no coincidence that Faustino Asprilla, the most vivid expression of Newcastle's more indulgent side, has played little part in the team's revival, and what chance he had of appearing in this match was removed by his delayed return from midweek international duty with Colombia. Keegan said that Asprilla had arrived back in Newcastle at 3.30 yesterday afternoon and that he would be travelling with the team to Hungary for this week's Uefa Cup tie against Ferencvaros, having obtained a visa in Bogota. But Keegan wasn't happy with the subject. "Can we talk about the match?" he asked as press questions about Asprilla persisted.

If reliability is now higher on Keegan's list of priorities, then he has the right man in Shearer. That is not to say his performance was without blemish. With only two minutes gone he was put through by a wonderful pass from Peter Beardsley but hit an under-powered shot that Russell Hoult was able to get a hand to. And for much of the rest of the match he was well marshalled by the 36-year-old Paul McGrath, newly arrived from Aston Villa as Derby sought to bring some experience to their defence. But on the one occasion McGrath erred, Shearer made him pay. After Newcastle had made the better start - Les Ferdinand also came close with a volley from the edge of the area - Derby began to get forward in numbers. Their Croatian midfielder, Aljosa Asanovic, proved a handful, but there was an element of bluster about Derby's approach and they created nothing clear-cut until the 58th minute when Christian Dailly shot from the edge of the area and Srnicek flung himself to his left to make the save. Srnicek followed that with a back-pedalling tip over the bar from a lob by Marco Gabbiadini - the substitute's first touch - before Shearer made his decisive contribution.

The chance came 14 minutes from the end from a free-kick on the left by John Beresford. McGrath probably should not have allowed it to reach Shearer, who collected the ball on the far side of the area and hammered a shot low past Hoult for his sixth Premiership goal of the season.

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