TIM Krul could be Newcastle United’s last line of defence as Wayne Rooney and company look to take their frustrations out on the Magpies tonight.
Stephen Ireland is set to make his long-awaited debut at home to Manchester United tonight, but his presence on the bench may be counter-balanced by the absence of first-choice goalkeeper Steve Harper with a knee injury.
Cheik Tioté returns from a two-match suspension and Shola Ameobi’s knee will undergo a late fitness test, but Harper’s predicament is perhaps the most significant team news ahead of tonight’s game at St James’ Park.
“He’s got a slight problem in his knee,” manager Alan Pardew said of Harper. “He had an injection and it’s settled down previously. This time he’s had the same injection and it hasn’t settled as quickly as we thought, so the game has probably come a bit too soon.
“There’s still time for it to recover a little bit, so we’ll probably make the call today.”
Krul’s last appearance was the FA Cup third-round defeat by Stevenage, when Harper’s wife was due to give birth. But the Dutch Under-21 international (pictured right) had a four-month run in the side earlier in the campaign, after Harper broke his collarbone at Everton.
Quite apart from the significance of tonight’s game – which sees Rooney return from a three-match domestic ban for swearing as the title-chasing Red Devils aim to banish memories of Saturday’s FA Cup derby defeat at Wembley – Krul’s appearance could have wider implications.
Pardew will decide in pre-season whether to retain Krul for 2011-12, or loan the 23-year-old out. Fraser Forster will be back from a successful temporary spell at Celtic, and Pardew does not want either idle as Newcastle’s third-choice goalkeeper.
Ameobi missed Newcastle’s last outing, at Aston Villa on April 10, with a swollen knee. He trained yesterday, and providing there is no reaction, will bolster a forward line which looked lightweight without him. Ireland is in line for his second St James’ debut this season, having made his first Aston Villa appearance there in August. He joined Newcastle on loan until the end of the season in January, but a succession of minor injuries mean his last game was December 6.
Pardew has placed great faith in the former Manchester City midfielder – who would have figured in the last game had it not been against Villa – and expects him to have a big impact.
“The only worry with Stephen is lack of game action,” he said. “In training he looks terrific but over 90 minutes, I’m not going to know until he goes out there. It’s great to have that option.
“At Villa last week, to have brought Stephen Ireland on with 10, 15 minutes to go could have turned the game for us into a draw or a win. Without doubt for 20 minutes he can influence the game. How much more he’s got in the locker I don’t know.” Pardew believes the weekend results have made his side’s task harder, but is talking the pressure on them up rather than down.
“(Assistant manager) John Carver said after Sunderland this is probably the biggest game for Newcastle fans,” he revealed.
“I’ve never beaten them as a manager, but I beat them as player – 2-1, Old Trafford, Crystal Palace.
“I would be deceiving you if I said I thought they (United) wouldn’t be wounded (by their Cup exit). The Arsenal result (a costly 1-1 draw with Liverpool) has probably given them a lift. When you get a big defeat like that, you want a little lift and that couldn’t have been better from their perspective.
“Most neutrals would expect us to get beaten or not to win. But I don’t want our public to think that, because I want our players to expect to win every game, and every game at St James’ Park for sure.”