Wayne Rooney returns to Manchester United’s team as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men look to bounce back from the weekend’s FA Cup semi-final defeat. Barely 72 hours after Ferguson’s side lost 1-0 to Manchester City at Wembley in the cup, the focus switches to Tuesday night’s Premier League league tie with Newcastle United. Victory will take United nine points clear at the head of the league table, with Arsenal not in action until Wednesday and that a derby fixture with Tottenham Hotspur.
With Paul Scholes suspended after the midfielder’s horror-tackle on Pablo Zabaletta at the weekend, Ferguson will shake up both his midfield and attack for the trip north. Indeed, misfiring Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, who remains United’s top goalscorer this season, could stand down with a refreshed Rooney now available. Javier Hernández is also pushing for a recall.
But manager Ferguson says United must contend with the fiery St James’ Park atmosphere, a ground on which the Scot’s side has both been hugely successful and suffered humiliating defeats in recent seasons. In the context of the title race, Ferguson says that the trip north is the most important fixture of the season to date.
“Going to Newcastle is the most important game we have coming up because the league is still our first priority,” said Ferguson.
“The Premier League and the Champions League are the two priorities at this club. The players had a big adrenaline surge for the FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City but we need to win on Tuesday.
“And that’s why Newcastle and the home game with Everton next Saturday are vital – after that there are only four games left and then we go to Arsenal the following week. So Tuesday is absolutely crucial for us and I think everybody knows when you go to Newcastle you have to deal with the atmosphere up there.
“They have fantastic supporters and you know they will be on your backs because they probably need three extra points, although I don’t see them threatened with relegation. We have had some brilliant games up there and some high-scoring games.”
United’s cause is also bolstered by Jonny Evans’ return, although the Irishman is unlikely to start. Meanwhile Anderson is fully fit and the rested Ryan Giggs also available for the fixture. Evans has missed three matches following his dismissal against Bolton Wanderers in March, while Anderson is fit again following a knee injury.
However, Darren Fletcher will miss at least the next fortnight, with the Scot still suffering from a mystery virus. Indeed, United’s lethargic performance at Wembley would surely have been more intense had the 26-year-old midfielder played.
Whatever Ferguson’s selection on Tuesday night, veteran Edwin van der Sar says that United cannot afford to slip up against the Geordies. With just 13 more points required from six games to seal a 19th domestic league title, United will take a huge step towards silverware with victory on Tyneside.
“It won’t be difficult to pick ourselves up,” said the 40-year-old, who retires at the end of the season.
“We know how important the league is. We are in first position, so we just have to make the best of it. We were a little bit tired [on Saturday], the pace of our game was not quick enough. We have played a big number of games in the last three or four weeks and against Newcastle we must do better.”
Meanwhile, Alan Pardew’s side is seeking a first win against United at St James’ since 2001, when the Geordie outfit won 4-3. However, United emerged 3-0 victors at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season – a 13th victory in the last 16 encounters with Newcastle. And while United’s loss to City at the weekend marked the first following seven wins in a row, Newcastle’s form has deteriorated in recent weeks. Pardew’s side has won just two in the last 12.
Despite the poor form, Newcastle should be safe from relegation with one more win this season and Pardew thinks that the St James’ atmosphere could bring those three points against United on Tuesday night.
“It is a fixture I genuinely believe Sir Alex will be very wary of,” said Pardew.
“Maybe not so much because he fears us as a team, but because he fears the ground and the reaction it can inspire the team to. For example, the Arsenal game – Newcastle were 4-0 down and our first goal goes in and suddenly you felt the crowd erupt and impact on the game.
“That is what [Ferguson] will fear, perhaps more than the [Newcastle] team, but I honestly believe he will genuinely fear this game. They have only lost a handful of games all season, but we have looked at how they lost those games and we have come up with what we believe is a kind of theme.”
While that ‘pattern’ may well be United’s timidity on the road at times this season – Ferguson’s outfit has won just five of 16 games Premier League games away from Old Trafford – it will take a significant effort for the Geordies to halt the Reds charge to title 19.
Newcastle – 4411 – Harper; Simpson, Coloccini, Williamson, Jose Enrique; Lovenkrands, Barton, Guthrie, Gutierrez; Nolan; Ranger. Subs from: Taylor, Taylor, Kuqi, Perch, Krul, Tavernier, Ferguson, Donaldson, Richardson, Campbell.
United – 442 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Giggs; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Berbatov, Rafael, Smalling, Valencia, Park.
Referee: Lee Probert
Assistant referees: Andy Halliday & Trevor Massey
Fourth official: Jon Moss
Newcastle – WDLLWL
United – WWWWWL