Sir Alex Ferguson will rally his troops once again tonight in a season of some ups and far too many downs. Manchester United, fresh from New Years Eve defeat to Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford, travel to Newcastle United seeking victory, and some redemption from Saturday’s “disaster”. Not for the first this season. With title rivals Manchester City having again opened up a three-point gap in the Premier League title race, Ferguson knows that United has little margin for error in the visit to seventh-placed Newcastle.
United’s injury problems are still significant, but the United manager should welcome back veterans Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs to a starting 11 that failed so conspicuously against the Premier League’s bottom club on Sir Alex’ birthday. The duo will add experience and defensive nous, while defender Chris Smalling could also return after a bout of tonsillitis.
Ferguson must also choose between embattled goalkeeper David de Gea, who made mistakes against Blackburn, and Dane Anders Lindegaard.
Ferguson’s line-up is also likely to include Wayne Rooney, the errant striker who was dropped by Ferguson for Blackburn’s visit. Rooney, reportedly aggrieved at his treatment but willing to accept a huge fine, is likely to partner in-form Dimitar Berbatov at a venue that has been a happy hunting ground for the Reds in recent seasons. United has not lost at St. James’ Park for a decade.
But Newcastle’s improvement under Alan Pardew this season, despite losing key players in the summer, means that it is unlikely to be anything but comfortable in the north east, even if the home side’s form has tailed off over the Christmas and New Year period.
“We’re trying hard to get Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs back which would make a good difference to us,” Ferguson confirmed.
“Anderson should be better. He had 45 minutes on Saturday after four months out. Wayne Rooney will be available, of course. We had a few training sessions which he missed. You’ve got to be fit to play in this league, you can’t miss training sessions.”
However, Ferguson once again ruled out signings to patch up a United team that has tasted heavy derby defeat and been dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage. United’s loss to Blackburn on Saturday was only United’s second defeat of the league campaign – both at Old Trafford – but taken in totality the Reds are now out of two competitions, behind in the league and facing the club’s greatest rivals, away, in the FA Cup.
Ferguson says that the players United might want are not available in January, moving on from a previous assertion that there is ‘no value in the market.’
“The reason there may not be many big signings in January is because the players clubs want are not available,” Ferguson said.
“To be honest with you, who would want to sell their best player in January? I don’t see it happening. There are cases of players whose contracts are running out in the summer but they won’t get the same money anyway. It’ll be well reduced. We don’t need to do anything until the end of January. We can take our time with that one. We’ve got, say, three weeks before we can make up our mind.”
Ferguson may well be right, although the statement ignores previous deals United has struck for Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Andy Cole, among others. But the likelihood that United will fight it out with City for the Premier League and FA Cup without adding to a midfield that has sorely failed at times this season is concerning.
However, Ferdinand says that United’s experience will serve the side well as the season moves into its second half. The United defender, in his 10th season at Old Trafford, was in fine form before a long-standing back injury flared up again in the past fortnight. Ferdinand is likely to partner Phil Jones or Smalling in the centre of defence, with Michael Carrick returning to central midfield.
“It’s all about doing it. Many players in our squad have done things but this is the most important one. It’s not about remembering the past, it’s about trying to create more history and be a part of the history of this club. I’ll be honest – and it pains me to say it – but it was probably one of the best things that happened to us.
“We’ve got a crazy amount of injuries and illnesses, yet we’re still managing to get the results and long may that continue. The most important thing is the way the squad is playing now. The manager has said at the beginning of the season it’s not about 11 men. Since we went out of the Champions League we’ve shown a great resolve in our squad.”
That resolve is likely to be tested again, with Newcastle resurgent this season even if the side’s recent form has tailed off. Although the Geordies lost 3-1 to Liverpool last week, Pardew’s lies comfortably in the Premier League top half based on a sound defence, and the potent attacking threat of Demba Ba. This could mean Ferguson is tempted to beef up his central midfield, or deploy Park Ji-Sung in one of the wide berths.
Meanwhile, Alan Pardew will deploy Ba and Cheik Tiote for the final time before the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea on 21 January. However, Pardew is definitely without Danny Guthrie and Peter Lovenkrands, neither of whom has recovered from injury in time for the fixture.
“Looking at Manchester United’s recent games, teams that have sat back have got thumped,” Pardew admitted.
“They’ve got such talent in their ranks, they’re going to cause you problems but we have a striker in form and a central midfield pairing that I think is as good as theirs. Our back line and goalie have been resolute all year, so we’re in a good position to try and attack the game. It’s important to retain the ball against United, to make them work but it’s also important we make sure we offer a threat.”
Former United winger Gabriel Obertan should be fit for the tie with his former club. The Frenchman has featured regularly this season despite two frustrating years at Old Trafford. Indeed, the 23-year-old has broken into the French squad after the £3 million move to the north east, and could make the plane for Euro 2012 later this summer. It’s a far cry from the occasional aimless appearance in Red.
And Obertan will hope to put one over his former employers while turning around Newcastle’s recent form. The Toon has lost four of six league games since snatching a draw at Old Trafford in November.
Newcastle United versus Manchester United, Premier League, St. James’ Park, Wednesday 4 January 2012, 7.45pm.
Newcastle (4-5-1): Krul; Simpson, Coloccini, Williamson; R Taylor; Obertan, Cabaye, Tiote, Ben Arfa, Gutierrez; Ba. Subs from: Vuckic, Elliot, Santon, Perch, Best, Sh Ameobi, Sa Ameobi
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Fryers, Anderson, Nani, Pogba, Cole, Diouf, Hernandez, Welbeck.
- Manchester United was brought back to earth after successive 5-0 victories over Wigan Athletic and Fulham, with a 3-2 defeat to Blackburn Rovers last weekend;
- Nani covered the most ground for United in that game with 4.9 miles, the sixth time the Portugese winger has been the player to cover the most ground for United this season. He has now covered 108.2 miles for United this season, more than any other United playe;
- Despite the result, one positive is Berbatov’s remarkable scoring record since returning to the United starting line-up. The Bulgarian now has six goals in three games from just eight shots at goal, an incredible conversion rate of 75 per cent;
- The streak has sent Berbatov rocketing up the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index to 135th place, a movement of 189 places since last week;
- Patrice Evra completed more passes in his opponent’s half than any other player in the Index in the last round of games, with 51 in total. Evra’s passing performance puts him in the top 20 for a single game this season;
- Meanwhile, Newcastle suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool last time out, and will be hoping for a better return in front of home fans;
- Cheick Tiote, the subject of transfer speculation, covered the most ground for Newcastle in that game with 6.33 miles. The Ivory Coast midfielder has now covered 89.9 miles for Newcastle in 12 appearances;
- Tiote has also won 56 per cent of tackles attempted this season and made an impressive 31 interceptions.
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: D Cann, J Collin
Fourth Official: M Atkinson