Extra spice for the first bite

Keegan's capture of the pounds 15m man and the vestiges of bitterness bring a dash to Wembley's traditional curtain-raiser
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The Independent Online
Hands up those who can name the last five champions and FA Cup winners. Most. And the last five Charity Shield winners? It is indeed a forgotten match once the real business of the season begins next Saturday, but this year's at least may linger a little longer in the memory, for 15 million and one reasons.

The prospect of Alan Shearer's appearance for Newcastle United against the club who also tried to sign him has seen enthusiasm for the new season, which was not in short supply anyway, reach a rare pitch with six days still to go. The other reason is that the opponents are Manchester United, with whom Newcastle have become embroiled in one of the most intense rivalries of the modern game.

Rarely have there been queues for tickets at competing clubs, as there were outside St James' Park last week, with those unable to get in on Shearer's debut on Friday night at Sincil Bank seeking instead a sighting of the most famous sheet-metal worker's son in the country at Wembley today. He hopes, he has said, that the cheers will drown the jeers from the supporters of United, whom he has now spurned twice.

It provides as well an early edge to what contained one anyway, given United's overhauling of Newcastle on their way to their second Double in three years and Kevin Keegan's bristling response to some of Alex Ferguson's psychology during the run-in. The United manager was at it again on Friday, smiling as he agreed that Newcastle must be favourites for the championship this season given the Shearer signing.

It appeared that Shearer would surely go to United, if he was to transfer to another English club, to replace an Andy Cole who has often looked clumsy around the surer touch of Eric Cantona, and give them a more complete look for the Champions' League. It was not a question of the Blackburn owner Jack Walker blocking the deal, Shearer insisted, but of that old Geordie pull of home being too strong to resist.

The surprise of the move comes in Keegan's perception that Newcastle's need is for even more goal potential rather than goal prevention. That and the manager's willingness to pair him with Les Ferdinand, assuming last season's 31-goal man is able to adapt to the newcomer, when Terry Venables considered the pair probably too similar to be effective partners at international level. Then again, Premier League defenders are more easily run through.

Shearer himself believes a personal 30-goal haul for the fourth successive season is improbable given that goals are shared more at Newcastle, who possess in David Ginola, Peter Beardsley, Faustino Asprilla and Robert Lee more striking talent than Blackburn Rovers ever have. Perhaps Keegan has, though, bought him for another reason.

Last season, a vulnerability under stress was evident and it was ultimately decisive. It has never been seen in the teak-tough psyche of Shearer, who will be able to tell team-mates - or more probably show them - the qualities that led Blackburn to the title two seasons ago.

Shearer, Newcastle's single import, could be the only new face at either club who starts the match today. Ferguson believes that his signings, including Karel Poborsky, Ronnie Johnsen and Jordi Cruyff, may benefit more from watching and absorbing from the subsitutes' bench. He also wants to reward the team who brought them here with another Wembley appearance.

After that, it seems that only the spine of the team - Peter Schmeichel, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, if his back holds up, and Eric Cantona - will be assured regular appearances as he mixes and matches for the various assaults on the various competitions. The Champions' League is the priority of autumn, during which they will seek to remain in the championship hunt ready for a renewed effort in the New Year.

"They all know it is players who pick the team with their performances," says Ferguson. "None of them, though, can expect to play every game that we face in what will be a really big season for us. I never use the term dropping players but we have got to ease them in and out very carefully with the programme we face. It is something Jordi already knows. The Premier League is just too hard and physical for players to play in every game."

Only Andy Cole, who is recovering from pneumonia, is unavailable for United, with Paul Scholes likely to replace him up front. Ryan Giggs and Keane are expected to have recovered from injuries.

It will be interesting to see if Keegan plays three at the back as he seeks to accommodate all his attacking talent. Just as interesting to see who seizes the early initiative, even if it should fool no one.

"If we win this and nothing else, it won't be good enough for Sir John Hall and our supporters," says Keegan. "This game, though, could set the standard for the season."

Probable line-ups

Manchester United: Schmeichel; P Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs, Butt, Keane, Beckham; Cantona, Scholes. Substitutes: Van der Gouw, G Neville, Johnsen, Cruyff, Cooke, Davies, Poborsky.

Newcastle United: Hislop; Barton, Albert, Howey, Watson; Lee, Batty; Ginola, Gillespie; Shearer, Beardsley. Substitutes: Srnicek, Peacock, Crawford, Clark, Holland, Asprilla, Kitson.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland). Kick-off 3.0

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