Anything less than a win at St. James’ Park and it will be mathematically impossible for Manchester United to retain the Premier League crown this season. There is, then, still hope for those of the most optimistic bent. For the rest, gallows humour has long since taken over in the worst United campaign of the Premier League era. After all, with United out of the hunt domestically, and favourites to fall in the Champions League next Wednesday, there is little optimism left at Old Trafford.
There is less hope still after news filtered through on Friday that Wayne Rooney will miss at least one game with a toe injury – possibly even United’s trip to Munich. Should Rooney’s injury persist, as toe problems often do, it will represent a devastating blow to David Moyes’ hopes for a strong finish to the campaign.
“Wayne is injured. He has a badly bruised toe so he won’t be involved. It will be touch and go for Wayne for Wednesday,” Moyes told the press on Friday.
“With a lot of toe injuries you have to make sure there isn’t a hairline fracture or crack in your toe. We will have all that checked. It is a toe injury and they are never easy when you get one.
“You could see him limping in the game towards the end quite badly. There is not an awful lot you can do with a toe injury – sometimes you can feel better quite quickly with them and sometimes you need an injection possibly to play with it if it is bruising.”
Still, United’s record on the road in the Premier League is outstanding this season; a strange aberration in an otherwise dismal campaign. The Reds’ haul of 30 points away from Old Trafford betters any opposition, although United failed to win at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Etihad, Emirates, or White Hart Lane. St. James’, alongside Goodson Park, represents the toughest fixtures away from Old Trafford remaining in the domestic season.
Moyes’ side comes off a morale-boosting draw with Bayern Munich, if ultimately a result that does little to ensure the Reds’ progress in Europe. United must win or score at least twice at the Allianz Arena to progress. It is an outcome few outside of M16 believe likely after a night in which the European champions dominated possession and created 16 chances, largely blowing the opportunity to win at Old Trafford through attacking profligacy.
There is nowhere near Bayern’s quality available to Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew, of course, although the Geordies’ record against United in recent seasons is decent. Still, with Newcastle’s recent dire form placing Pardew under genuine pressure, Moyes is likely to be optimistic of another positive away result ahead of next Wednesday’s decisive European fixture.
“The only thing we are thinking about is the Newcastle game,” said Moyes on Friday.
“The focus is all on Newcastle. We have to go up there and put on a good performance and get three points, trying to build a little bit of momentum towards the end of the season. We will go there and try to do that.
“Obviously I have got other things on the mind, but the focus is Newcastle and we will try to balance things out correctly. The message to the players is that it is Newcastle United, this is the next game and it is the most important one.”
Rooney aside, Moyes will take a strong squad to the north east, with Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Nani potentially involved, although Robin van Persie remains on the sidelines. Evans, Smalling and Nani have missed much of United’s recent programme, but should be available for the remaining games of United’s season.
Smalling may start, although Evans – having been out for two months – is more likely to begin the match on the bench, with Michael Carrick only deputising in central defence if Moyes is unwilling to risk captain Nemanga Vidić for a second game in three days.
In Rooney’s stead both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández will hope to start up front, with Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata also both in contention for midfield berths.
“We have got Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling back in training,” said the manager.
“Ryan Giggs picked up a wee bit of an injury and we are not quite so worried about Alex Büttner. He is not as bad as when he first came off. We have got Jonny and Chris on the way back, which is important for us because we have missed them through what has arguably been one of the most difficult times of the season for us. We could have done with their youth and enthusiasm.”
Whatever the selection Moyes has remained bullish about United’s chances in the aftermath of last Tuesday’s match. While there was little attractive about United’s defensive strategy, which involved almost a quarter of all the Reds’ passes being launched long, the Scot demanded his team remain in the tie ahead of the second leg. That United remain, although Bayern’s home record is, of course, outstanding this season.
Still, there was a mental fortitude on Wednesday that has been lacking for much of the campaign – an attitude that must filter through to the remaining six Premier League games of the season, and whatever is to come in Europe. Saturday is both a test of the players’ resolve and Moyes’ ability to motivate his squad away from a big European fixture.
“I believe the club showed its strength and has needed to show it at times this year. Everybody within the club has shown it and the atmosphere of the crowd was magnificent, it really was,” said Moyes.
“It was a terrific performance from the players. It was a special night as far as I am concerned, maybe one of the best games I have ever been involved in, because of the atmosphere, the crowd and the standard of the opposition. But more importantly, it was special because of the performance the players put in.”
It is unlikely to be as intense on Saturday afternoon; not least with Newcastle having lost three of the last four fixtures, including shipping seven against Southampton and Everton. Pardew’s job is made all the more difficult by a lengthy injury list that includes Moussa Sissoko, Tim Krul, Mathieu Debuchy and Loic Remy.
Yet, Newcastle will complete a first league double over United since 1931 with victory on Saturday, having secured a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in December. Yohan Cabaye’s goal proffered Newcastle maximum points from an away fixture with United for the first time in more than 40 years. Not the first record Moyes has secured this season.
But after the momentum that has seemingly been gathered following Tuesday’s result, defeat at St. James’ is simply unthinkable for United’s under-fire manager.
Newcastle United v Manchester United, Premier League, St James’ Park, 3pm, 5 April 2014
Newcastle (4-4-2): Elliot; Yanga-Mbiwa, Williamson, Coloccini, Haidara; Ben Arfa, Tioté, Anita, Gouffran; Cissé, de Jong
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Evans, Büttner; Young, Fletcher, Cleverley, Kagawa; Mata; Welbeck
Newcastle: Alnwick, Santon, Gosling, Sh Ameobi, Taylor, Dummett, Marveaux
United: Lindegaard, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidić, Fellaini, Carrick, Valencia, Nani, Januzaj, Hernández
Head to Head
Newcastle 41 Draw 37 United 80
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: J Flynn, R West
Fourth Official: C Boyeson
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