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Williamson relishing renewal of rivalries with Carroll
IT was a battle that raged on Newcastle United's training ground for more than 12 months, but tomorrow it will take place for real.
On one side of the divide, Andy Carroll, rampaging striker and returning marksman hell-bent on revenge. On the other, Mike Williamson, committed centre-half determined to repel the invader.
In March, as Carroll made an unsuccessful return to St James' Park with Liverpool that ended with him being jeered from the field as he was substituted, Williamson played alongside James Perch as Newcastle claimed a cherished clean sheet.
Tomorrow, Steven Taylor will be his partner in the absence of the suspended Fabricio Coloccini, but it is Williamson that is set to be charged with the task of containing Carroll.
The challenge will not be easy, with the former Newcastle number nine finally regaining some of the spark that persuaded Liverpool to shell out a mind-boggling £35m for his services almost two years ago.
But having contained Carroll on a number of occasions in the past, Williamson is confident of coming out on top tomorrow.
“I've had some decent battles with Andy on the training ground down the years,” said the defender, who was part of the Newcastle side that edged closer to qualification for the Europa League's knock-out phase with a 2-2 draw at Club Brugge on Thursday. “Every now and then we would line up against each other and it was always a decent contest.
“It was good fun doing it in training so I just hope it's as enjoyable if we have to do it for real this weekend. It'll be a little bit more competitive on Sunday I'm sure, but we both know plenty about each other's game. I'm looking forward to it. As a defender, you always want to test yourself against the best players, and he certainly falls into that category.”
A run of niggling injuries has restricted Carroll to just five league starts for West Ham, but he has already developed into the attacking focal point for Sam Allardyce's side.
Allardyce's instructions are to hit Carroll at every available opportunity, and attempt to profit from the lay-offs or knock-downs that follow.
In Kevin Nolan, another former Magpie, West Ham boast the perfect player to make the most of Carroll's aerial domination, and with Allardyce's sides hardly known for a lightweight approach, Williamson is anticipating a fierce physical examination.
“We're expecting a really tough test and, physically, they're going to be very strong,” he said. “They play in a certain way and we have to do what we can to counter that. We'll have to recover as best we can after Thursday, make sure we prepare right and then go again at the weekend.
“We don't need reminding about Andy and Kevin – I'm sure they'll be both relishing the opportunity to come back and play. It will be tough, we know that. But if we can keep our spirit and levels of work rate as high as they have been, hopefully our passing can come to the fore because that's our big strength.”
While West Ham have had a free week to prepare for tomorrow's game, Newcastle's players travelled to Belgium and played in an energy-sapping European encounter on Thursday night.
Alan Pardew made eight changes for the game in Brugge's Jan Breydel Stadion, but with injuries and suspensions limiting his options for too much tinkering, there is a chance that up to six players who were involved three days ago will be asked to start against the Hammers.
That poses its own problems, although Williamson is confident his team-mates will be ready for the challenge that lies ahead.
“The extra Europa League games put a strain on things, and we're obviously going to be missing a few players at the weekend and that doesn't help,” he said.
“Travelling over to Brugge and then playing in a really tough game is probably not the way you would choose to prepare for West Ham, but that's what we have to deal with.
“We're doing everything right behind the scenes to give ourselves the best chance of being ready. We've got a great coaching staff that are helping us to recover as best we can. Hopefully, the results should prove that.”
And if things do not go to plan, at least Newcastle can call on the services of arguably the most in-form goalkeeper in the league. Tim Krul impressed against Liverpool last weekend, and made two crucial late saves to secure his side a point on Thursday.
“When you've got confidence coming from your goalkeeper, it spreads throughout the team, and we've certainly got that from Tim at the moment,” said Williamson. “It's fantastic to know that when you need him to help you out, he does that. He's been doing it for a while now and it's testament to his qualities because he's come in and done fantastically well.”
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