Ba humbug for rival bosses
The contrast in their emotions could not have been starker after Newcastle United's victory over Manchester United last night, but Alex Ferguson and Alan Pardew will share the same sinking feeling that comes with trying to replace the irreplaceable this morning.
Ferguson is still trying to find someone to succeed Edwin van der Sar, despite spending £18m on David de Gea, and while Demba Ba's absence is only temporary, Pardew must look to fill the void left by his departure for the Africa Cup of Nations this month. You suspect Newcastle's manager will decide it is a futile task, but success for Ferguson is crucial if his side wish to challenge the best in Europe.
On first watch, Ba's first-half goal caught Anders Lindegaard napping, but that would be harsh on the Dane. Running on to Shola Ameobi's flick, Ba's finish was exquisite, hooking the ball first time into the far corner. All Lindegaard could do was stand and admire the precision, and if anyone was to blame it was Rio Ferdinand for failing to get tight enough on the Senegal international.
To say Ba has been a bargain is a startling understatement. In terms of value for money, it is hard to think of a better transfer.
A free transfer following West Ham's relegation to the Championship, Ba has been sensational, and while other more illustrious names may beat him to the end-of-season awards, nobody has had a bigger positive influence on their side than he.
The decision to sign him was supposedly a risk because of an old knee injury -- damage that gave Stoke enough reason to pull out of a deal to sign him 12 months ago.
How they must regret those cold feet now. Ba has not missed a game through injury this season, the only doubts about his fitness caused by his fasting for Ramadan in August.
His goal against Manchester United was his 15th of the season in his 18th start. In 2011, only Arsenal's Robin van Persie scored more. Ba has troubled every goalkeeper he has faced this season, let alone a Dane who many feel should be considered Manchester United's No 1 in preference to his costly rival.
De Gea says he is not worried about his mistakes, but Ferguson clearly is as the young Spaniard paid for the latest blunder with his place on the bench last night.
Ferguson's instinct has been to protect the 21-year-old from criticism, but there was a notable shift in the Scot's stance when not only did he select Lindegaard, he even admitted that it was down solely to performances, not squad rotation. The size of the £18m fee will always mean potential is not enough as far as De Gea is concerned, and Ferguson has had this sort of trouble before.
When Peter Schmeichel departed, Ferguson tried and tried again to find a suitable replacement, and he has been auditioning for Van der Sar's successor for several seasons now. Mark Bosnich, Raimond van der Gouw, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Roy Carroll and Tim Howard all tried to fill Schmeichel's gloves before Van der Sar did.
A Manchester United 'keeper should be worth 10 points a season to his side, not cost them, but that is what De Gea has done, hence the decision to start Lindegaard in a game the Red Devils needed to win.
The Dane, who arrived for £3.5m from Aalesund in November 2010, has had his moments this season, particularly in Europe, although his must constantly feel as though he is auditioning for a part he was only ever meant to be an understudy for.
Lindegaard conceded three goals last night, but it would be harsh to attach his blame to any of the goals.
But United's defenders do not seem to have complete confidence in him either, as was illustrated by Phil Jones's header for Newcastle's comical third. It remains to be seen whether Ferguson is willing to put his faith in him or gamble on De Gea once more. (© Daily Telegraph, London)