Dynamic duos promise goals as Newcastle take on United
The Cissé-Ba and Rooney-Van Persie pairings should light up St James's Park
It may have been tempting fate, but Newcastle's manager Alan Pardew could be forgiven for predicting that his team's meeting with Manchester United today is unlikely to be short on goals. The fixture rarely has been, thanks to a positive approach that has historically been the guiding philosophy at both clubs, and exciting victories during the past week in European ties suggest this afternoon should be no exception, given their attacking options.
On one side are the adopted Senegalese Geordies Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé, whose only weakness is that they never both seem to be firing at the same time. Pardew believes that may now change after he rested Ba (six goals in six games this season) for the Europa League tie against Bordeaux on Thursday night and was rewarded with a much-improved performance from Cissé and a goal to go with the one he scored in a 2-1 League Cup defeat at Old Trafford 11 days ago.
This week in Transylvania, Manchester United fielded an arrow- head of Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney in their Champions' League tie against Cluj, Van Persie scoring twice after being set up by Rooney on the night the pair started together for the first time. In the 2-1 victory the flair up front compensated for what Sir Alex Ferguson admitted was some worrying defensive work.
Since Van Persie was recruited for £24m – when many observers felt defence was the greater priority – supporters have been looking forward to seeing his partnership with Rooney, whose gashed leg in the second game of the season meant it was October before they played a full 90 minutes in tandem. "They could play up front together but I think one would always drop in [deeper], which we don't mind," Ferguson said of the alliance. "We could use them as a front two as well, it is possible. We have great options in that."
It should not be forgotten that the options also include Hernandez, who had a stunning first season in England with 20 goals and was deemed to have regressed a little last season with a dozen. But this is the same total as Danny Welbeck, who would still be regarded as first choice for England in tandem with Rooney were he playing more regularly for United (being stuck out on the wing by Roy Hodgson when he came on against Ukraine last month demonstrates his plight).
So United have a quartet to rival the fab four of the late-Nineties, when Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole became first choice; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham were ready to come on. "It did a lot of good for Cole and Yorke, because they knew Sheringham and Solskjaer wanted to play," Ferguson has said.
It is an oddity that Rooney has yet to score this season in five games, a run which the manager promises will not last much longer: "I think Rooney will explode again soon. It is just the start of the season. He is fit, he has trained really well. The period he was injured, I think that was key to it. He maintained his fitness, which is important because he is a stocky lad."
Hodgson, for whom Rooney has only started two games in his nine-match tenure as England manager, is "really excited" at the prospect of having him available to face San Marino and Poland in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Hodgson was at his most paternal when talking about the pressures faced by the striker ever since he burst into Sven Goran Eriksson's England team almost 10 years ago: "We put players like Wayne under an enormous amount of scrutiny and pressure," said the current England manager. "The moment he doesn't play like a genius we want to write him off as being hopeless. That is very unfair.
"We all know he is a magnificent player but football doesn't give you the opportunity to be magnificent every time you step on to a football field. In the Euros it was difficult for him with that waiting period [two-match suspension] and when he got on the field we expected him to be some sort of messiah. Players have to be mentally strong enough, and he is, absolutely."
Pardew is just as admiring, and feels that Newcastle are unlucky to be the first Premier League side on whom Rooney and Van Persie will be unleashed from the start. "Rooney is England's best player," said the Newcastle manager. "He changes Man United from a top-four team to a top-two team. That's how powerful he is. We've no plans to stop him because I don't think you can. If you plan for Wayne Rooney, what are you going to do about Van Persie?"
In Ba and Cissé, Pardew believes he, too, has a pair to cause problems now that the latter has that Bordeaux goal behind him: "You can tell with Papiss that he is sound now and his confidence is fine," said Pardew. "He scored a fantastic goal and that will do him some good. Confidence is so important for a striker and I have no concerns that Papiss will score plenty of goals for us. Like all great players, you need to stand by them when things are not going perfectly. Two great strike-forces with world-class players. That's why I can't see it being a 0-0 or a 1-1."
Wonga are in talks to become Newcastle's next shirt sponsors in a three-year deal from next season after the club decided not to take up the option of a further year with Richard Branson's Virgin Money. Wonga's existing shirt sponsorship of Blackpool is due to expire at the end of the current season.
Newcastle United v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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