Teesside tunes up for Juninho debut

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There must be someone tucked away on Teesside who does not know Juninho has joined Middlesbrough, but even that news hermit should have an inkling by this evening. There is just a little hype surrounding the Brazilian's debut at the Riverside Stadium today.

For a start, a 30-piece samba band and dancers will be performing to make the club's pounds 4.75m signing feel at home. Then there is the huge banner written in his native Portuguese and the thousands of flags and happy hands with the player's name printed across them.

And just in case he feels he is not properly wanted, a helicopter will fly a 60ft by 80ft Middlesbrough shirt over the ground with "Welcome Juninho" emblazened across it. Oh, and there is a football match against Leeds United too.

To put it mildly, Juninho's transfer from Sao Paulo has caught the imagination on Teesside. Middlesbrough's souvenir shop cannot get enough Brazilian shirts to sell and the ticket office has resembled Harrods at sale time, with people camping out from early morning to ensure they get a ticket for his debut.

There was a crowd of 9,000 at the Riverside to watch television screens of Boro's away game at Manchester United last Saturday, seats sold in anticipation that Juninho would be playing, and today 30,000 will pack the ground. Such was the clamour for Brazil's player of the year this week that Middlesbrough's training sessions had to be held behind closed doors.

"I'm sure he will be made to feel very welcome," the Boro manager, Bryan Robson, said with just a little understatement. "It should be a memorable occasion for all. I am looking forward to seeing him play in my team. It's pleasing all the paper work has been sorted out and everything is 100 per cent sealed. I know it's some time since he played in a match but he has a lot of natural fitness."

The last player to stir the soul as much in Middlesbrough was Wilf Mannion, now 77, who believes Juninho will cope with the physical demands of the Premiership. "He will move like a gazelle," he said. "He will sense when the rhinos are coming.

"He may be only 5ft 5in but size does not count if you have a football brain. Many lightly built players in my playing years were great footballers because of natural talent and timing. Good players know when to make a move and how to beat an opponent."

On some Saturdays, particularly those diluted by the requirements of television, Jun- inho's arrival would overshadow the rest of the programme. Today, however, promises to be pivotal as the top four in the Premiership play each other while the slender thread connecting Manchester City to the top flight would look even thinner if they lose at home to Bolton.

"If anyone had told me before the season started we'd be having a crunch game with Bolton in November, I would have laughed at them," Alan Ball, the City manager, said. "But it's there. You can't even consider the possibility of defeat. If the thought even enters your mind, it'll happen."

Newcastle, the league leaders, face their stiffest test to date when they entertain third-placed Liverpool, who are smarting from their Uefa Cup exit in midweek.

"We've had good results," Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, said, "and played some good football but so have Liverpool. This is one you look forward to even if you're a bit wary. You know it's going to be difficult but that's what the Premiership is all about."

If Newcastle lose and Manchester United win at fourth-placed Arsenal, the Premiership will have new leaders for the first time since August. Then again, if United finish with 11 men on the pitch it will be the first time at Highbury for three years. Eric Cantona was dismissed two years ago while last season Mark Hughes received a red card.

"I hope it's a game of football," United's manager, Alex Ferguson, said, "rather than the problems we have had over the last few years when the referees have succumbed to the pressures of the Arsenal fans.

"There's a deep rivalry between the clubs but it does not excuse some of the things that have gone on. The sendings-off of Mark and Eric were very unfair. The referee has an important job and the Arsenal players, too, have a responsibility."

Ferguson's team of angels will, of course, include a certain Roy Keane (three sendings-off in 14 matches).