The latest in our series of classic matches remembers the night in September 1997 that Newcastle United took down Barcelona at St. James’ Park, with the help of a Colombian maverick.
The expansion of Europe’s premier club competition from 16 teams to 24 in 1997 allowed for the inclusion of runners-up for the highest rated leagues to enter – to the benefit in this case of Newcastle and Barcelona as both had finished second in their domestic leagues the previous season. The Magpies, about to embark on their first ever Champions League campaign, were without record signing Alan Shearer, with the England striker sustaining a broken leg a preseason friendly that was due to rule him out for at least half of the season.
Barcelona, despite losing superstar striker Ronaldo the previous summer, could still call upon the world class talents like Rivaldo and Luis Figo as they attempted to return to the top of the European pile.
However, the Catalan superstars were in for a bit of a shock.
The match itself was dominated by one man – and it to the surprise of many it wasn’t a player in red and blue. Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla, having seen his role marginalised the previous season by the partnership of Shearer and Les Ferdinand, was determined to prove his worth to manager Kenny Dalglish and make a statement on the big stage.
He made a fantastic start, running at Barcelona and linking well with John Barnes to create a chance for Jon Dahl Tomasson. The Magpies took the lead on the 23rd minute, Asprilla converting from the penalty spot having been taken down by Barça keeper Ruud Hesp. It got better for the home side nine minutes later, Keith Gillespie sprinting past Sergi on the right before playing a cross to be met by Asprilla with a towering header.
2-0 up at half time, nobody would have blamed Newcastle for sitting on their lead and adopting a more defensive stance for the second period – and yet, in actual fact, they increased their lead further. Great work from Gillespie once again, charging down the wing on the break he was once more able to find the head of Asprilla, completing the Colombian’s hat-trick and sending the St. James’s Park crowd into dreamland.
The home side finally began to sit back after the third but continued to look lively on the counter attack. A great save from Hesp was needed to deny Asprilla a fourth following another cross from Gillespie, while at the other end Nadal’s half volley was brilliantly palmed away by Shay Given.
Barcca began the attempted fightback after 73 minutes, Figo’s cross forced in by Luis Enrique after a defence-splitting through ball from Rivaldo. It all began to get a bit nervy for Newcastle from there on in as Barcelona grew in confidence. Shay Given continued his good performance to keep out a low drive from Rivaldo, however he could nothing to prevent a free kick from the Brazilian from getting past him minutes later. To his relief, the ball ricocheted off the crossbar.
Barcelona’s second came two minutes from time. Given failed to adequately deal with a corner, and although Warren Barton was able to clear the ball fell to Luis Figo on the edge of the area, the Portuguese international’s low drive skipped past a number of players to beat Given on the near post.
By then, though, Barcelona had left it too late and Newcastle were able to hold on for a famous victory.
For Newcastle, this was to be the highlight of their first Champions League season. No wins from their next four matches meant that even a final 2-0 victory over Dynamo Kyiv was not enough to see them progress as they finished third in the group on 7 points. In the Premier League, meanwhile, their season went from bad to worse. After two successive second place finishes they could only manage a massively disappointing 13th place this term, the only silver lining being a run to the FA Cup final, where they were beaten by league champions Arsenal.
Barcelona had an even worse time of it in this group. Their only win came in the home time against Newcastle as they finished bottom of the pile on five points. On the domestic front, though, they were able to win back the Spanish title after three years of disappointment.
Newcastle: Given, Barton, Watson, Albert, Beresford, Gillespie, Lee, Batty, Barnes, Tomasson, Asprilla
Subs: Peacock (Tomasson 77), Ketsbaia (Barnes 80)
Unused: Srnicek, Howey, Rush, Pinas, Hughes
Manager: Kenny Dalglish
Barcelona: Hesp, Celades, Reiziger, Nadal, Sergi, Figo, De la Pena, Amuneke, Rivaldo, Luis Enrique, Sonny Anderson
Subs: Ciric (Amuneke 46), Dugarry (S. Anderson 55)
Unused: Busquests, Abelardo, Amor, Pizzi, R. Garcia
Manager: Louis van Gaal