Whenever Manchester United lose a league game, interest in the following fixture is always heightened, because this is a club with a reputation for bouncing back – and to lose two games in succession would almost amount to a crisis.
That might sound faintly ridiculous, but it is a philosophy that is actively promoted within the club itself. "When we lose a game, we have to recover," Sir Alex Ferguson said before Sunday's visit to Newcastle, clearly spelling out the message that improvement will be demanded after last weekend's 3-2 home defeat by Tottenham. "Newcastle is always a difficult place to play, but, at the moment, we have real strength in our attacking options."
Newcastle was in fact the last English ground at which United suffered back-to-back league defeats, going down 3-0 last season after an even more surprising 2-3 defeat by Blackburn at home, on New Year's Eve. However, Ferguson's side recovered well enough from that double setback to win 11 of their next 12 games and open up a lead at the top of the table that prompted Manchester City to conclude the title was out of reach. The immediate response to the Newcastle defeat last January was to bring Paul Scholes back from retirement, which seemed to help, though it was the transfer business conducted this summer, with the recruitment of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, that gives United such an enviable range of front-end options.
Kagawa sat out the midweek victory over Cluj, with Wayne Rooney dropping back into midfield to provide the supply line to Van Persie. The pair showed a promising understanding, though – partly because Rooney is only just coming back from injury – they have yet to start a game as an attacking partnership. In Romania, the two up front were Van Persie and Javier Hernández. Many people, including the Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, think Rooney and Van Persie would make a sensational front pairing, though not only has Ferguson yet to try it, he is reluctant to confirm it was even what he had in mind when he bought the 29-year-old striker from Arsenal. "They could play up front together, there's no doubt about that, but one would always have to drop off a little and I think that would happen naturally," the United manager said.
"It is possible I will use them as a front two, but to be honest I am still exploring all the options. All the strikers we have at this club now, apart from Chicharito [Hernández], can play right at the front or drop in."
Pardew will be fascinated to see what permutation Ferguson comes up with. "We might be a bit unlucky; we might be the first team to face Rooney and Van Persie in tandem," he said. "At least that would mean we don't have to play Hernández, though who's to say Sir Alex won't play all three?"
That seems unlikely, unless Ferguson intends to consign Kagawa to the bench for a second game in succession, so it will either be the dream team up front or one of them plus the Mexican or Danny Welbeck. "I think it might be the big two," Pardew said. "Of course they will be able to play together, they are both class players."
Van Persie still has his Manchester United reputation to earn, though he has made a flying start with seven goals already, but as far as Pardew is concerned, Rooney is the main man. "He's fantastic, I love him," he said. "I love his passion and his toughness, he's my favourite player and England's best. He's the game changer for Manchester United, he gives them focus. In fact, I would go as far as to say Wayne Rooney is the difference between Manchester United being a top-four team and a top-two team. That's how influential and powerful he is."
Until this point, Rooney has mostly carried the Manchester United attack on his own. While he has been supported by other goalscorers, such as Dimitar Berbatov and Hernández, the England striker has unquestionably been the club's go-to man in recent seasons, the main source of attacking impetus and inspiration. With the arrival of a player who can also lead an attack and weigh in with important goals, some of that responsibility could be lifted from Rooney's shoulders, and Ferguson believes both forwards should be good for at least 20 goals each this season.
"Wayne has been injured, but we all know he will start scoring soon, I've no worries about that," Ferguson said. "Robin has started brilliantly and I don't even think he's at his best quite yet. He missed our pre-season and in his first games he was well short of fitness and sharpness, but he's a good pro, he realised he was a little way behind and he asked to do more conditioning work. You can see the results, I think he's getting sharper with each game he plays."
Pardew will be delighted to hear that, though he has in-form strikers of his own to pose problems for Manchester United's increasingly creaky defence. Ferguson was particularly impressed with Papiss Paul goal against Bordeaux in midweek. With Fabricio Coloccini and Nemanja Vidic both injured, neither defence will be at its strongest, but Ferguson, at least, believes his side can score enough goals this season to see them through.
"After the start he's made, I'm sure Van Persie will score at least 20 goals for us, and Rooney should be about the same," the Manchester United manager said. "If we can get another 20 from somewhere else, Chicharito and Danny Welbeck maybe, we should be in business."