One down, three to play in this year’s festive programme – and if Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is holding on to any lingering disappointment following Sunday’s draw at Swansea City then there is little time to wallow. Not with Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, the Geordies in dangerously poor form, and United seeking to bounce back from a first draw in 21 Premier League matches. Not that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will count any points secure just yet; not after last season’s 3-2 reserve to Blackburn Rovers at the same stage of the campaign.
Ferguson’s men will be smarting after dropping points in Wales despite a thoroughly dominant performance. Swansea’s equaliser came after Patrice Evra lost his man and Nemanja Vidić was slow to react, allowing Michu to score his 13th of a remarkable season – United’s 70-year-old manager will have gained little reassurance that the Reds’ defensive performances have improved.
Still, it will take a major turnaround in fortunes if Newcastle is to pull off a result at Old Trafford. After all, the Magpies have not beaten United in Manchester since February 1972. Moreover, Newcastle’s six defeats in the past 10 matches points to a team in dire form – and a manager under genuine pressure. Eight year contract or otherwise, manager Alan Pardew’s time at St James’ will surely be up should Newcastle suffer a poor festive period.
It is a shocking about-face for Pardew after Newcastle’s fifth place finish last time out – something Ferguson puts down to the Geordies’ ability to catch opponents off guard.
“The new players they brought in caught us all by surprise,” admits Ferguson.
“We didn’t really know a lot about them. I knew about Ba, of course, but I didn’t know anything about Cabaye or Cissé, to be honest with you. They had fantastic seasons. Second time round, clubs are starting to analyse them a bit different, plus, more importantly, he’s had some injuries.”
Meanwhile, title rivals Manchester City faces Sunderland on Wearside, with Roberto Mancini’s men seeking to improve on a mixed record on the road this season. The Blues clawed back two points on United in the Premier League table after beating Reading with a highly dubious goal at the weekend. But it is just that kind of fortune that swings titles either way.
Little wonder there is a tighter focus from United’s squad ahead of Newcastle’s visit. After all, further dropped points could see City close the gap to as little as a single point after Boxing Day.
“I felt that we deserved to win at Swansea and that is why I am really confident for the rest of the games we having coming up over Christmas,” defender Patrice Evra told MUTV.
“We have to move on from the draw and focus on our next game against Newcastle. It is important to win and it is important that we keep playing well. I think we need to talk about ourselves and not about another team. We face Newcastle at home, let’s make sure we get three points. After that it is West Brom and we must make sure we get three points then too. This is an important part of the season and it is an opportunity to get a lot of points.”
Ferguson is likely to rotate for the Geordies’ visit, with games against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic to come in the next week. Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernández, Darren Fletcher and Chris Smalling could all feature, with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes also available.
Rafael da Silva must overcome a hamstring injury if he is to replace Phil Jones at right-back.Captain Nemanja Vidić may sit out the tie after completing 90 minutes against Swansea on Sunday.
The Scot must also decide whether to keep faith with Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia. The latter is in an extended period of poor form, while Rooney suffered his worst game of the season at Swansea. While Rooney may sit out Newcastle’s visit, there are fewer alternatives to Valencia, with Nani still injured and United short of wingers in the squad.
Meanwhile, Newcastle manager Pardew will be without a slew of key players for the trip to the north west. Chieck Tiote is suspended after picking up a fifth booking of the season at the weekend, while Steven Taylor, Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Ryan Taylor are also absent through injury.
It is just the kind of ill fortune that has struck Pardew’s men this season, with Newcastle now just five points off the relegation zone following an exciting 2011/12 campaign. The fifth place finish that took Newcastle into Europe and proffered an eight-year contract for Pardew is now a distant memory.
“They’ve found it a bit tougher this year but I know they’ve had some injuries, which have played a part,” said United striker Welbeck, who spent a season at rivals Sunderland two years ago.
“You can still see potential throughout their team. They have some real attacking threats – everyone knows about players like Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé. All I can do is watch their games, look for any weaknesses and then do some damage on the pitch if I get the chance.”
Indeed, Welbeck is likely to start, with the youngster having featured from the bench more often than not this season. Longsight-born Welbeck has become the principal victim of £24 million Robin van Persie’s outstanding start to life with United.
Could the striker could fill his boots with a weak Newcastle side in town? Certainly, many will feel that an early goal could open the proverbial floodgates at Old Trafford. Then again, supporters said the same of United’s last Boxing Day fixture – the 2-3 reverse to Blackburn Rovers in Manchester.
Still, Newcastle has emerged victorious only once in the ;last 22 matches against United in all competitions – the 3-0 Premier League home victory in January. And the north east side has not beaten the Reds in 28 visits to Old Trafford.
Indeed, no club has secured more points against Newcastle than United in the Premier League era – 75. Few will bet against that total being 78 by Wednesday evening, with Pardew seemingly a lone voice of dissent.
“I’m actually going into it probably more buoyed than any other point of the season,” claimed the 51-year-old.
“We’ve definitely picked up, we look a little bit more resiliant, we picked up a very important clean sheet on Saturday and I think we’ll be in good heart for what is one of the toughest games of the programme: Manchester United away.”
Manchester United v Newcastle United – Premier League, Old Trafford – Wednesday 26 December 2012, 3pm
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Young, Carrick, Fletcher, Welbeck; Hernandez, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Vidić, Ferdinand, Buttner, Scholes, Cleverley, Valencia, Powell, Giggs, Rooney
Newcastle (4-5-1): Krul; Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, Santon; Cissé, Anita, Perch, Marveaux, Gutierrez; Ba. Subs from: Harper, Ferguson, Bigirimana, Obertan, Sh Ameobi, Sa Ameobi, Elliot
Referee: P Dowd
Assistants: G Beswick, S Ledger
Fourth Official: A Taylor
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Newcastle 1, Draw 3
Overall: United 79, Newcastle 40, Draw 37