AUTHOR: – Doron
The disappointment of losing to Man City in the FA Cup can be firmly left in the past as United travel to Newcastle to try and open up a 9 point gap over Arsenal. Newcastle are nicely placed in mid-table but will be frightfully aware that they are by no means ‘safe’ yet. United’s recent record at St James’ Park is good but given the team’s away form this year, that could count for very little.
Last time United faced Newcastle it was Chris Hughton in charge, that was the opening league game of this season. Since then, he’s been inexplicably sacked and replaced by Alan Pardew. Hughton did an excellent job in returning Newcastle to the top flight and Pardew has carried on the good work – not helped by losing star striker Andy Carroll to Liverpool in January; or by injuries to his main goalkeeper, Steve Harper as well as various remaining strikers. For any newly promoted side, sitting 10th with 6 games left to play would be a job well done. Yet, incredibly Newcastle are just 7 points off the very foot of the table – this league is unforgiving, Newcastle won’t be taking their current position for granted tonight, they need the win as much as Man United do.
Newcastle will be hoping Shola Ameobi is passed fit for tonight’s game otherwise Nile Ranger will again have to deputise. Since Carroll’s departure, Newcastle haven’t consistently had two fit strikers. This has seen Lovenkrands used as a make-shift forward when they attack, but he joins the midfield to help out in defence. Their key man and top scorer, Kevin Nolan is banned for this fixture but the central midfield area will remain tasty for Newcastle. Joey Barton has had an excellent season, showing some added discipline to his game at times. He’ll be partnered with one of the signings of the season, Cheik Tiote who returns from suspension.
The aim for Newcastle is of course survival given how tight the league is. Their form at the moment isn’t overly great, they’ve taken only 7 points from the last 18 available, which is better than some of the teams below them, but not all of them. Similarly, at home, Newcastle have taken 9 from the last 18 which again ranks fairly low down for home form amongst all the sides. This season, Newcastle could be even higher up the league if their home form hadn’t been so poor. They’ve only taken 21 points from 48 which is the 4th worst record in the division. They’e conceded 23 goals at home which is too many but, behind Man United, they’re the second top scorers with 36 goals. With only 5 games won in front of their home fans all season, this will be a key area to improve upon, should they stay up – they are one of only two teams to have not won more games at home than away from home.
The Newcastle squad isn’t quite fully fit – Ben Arfa, Best, Smith and Gosling remain long-term absentees whilst Harper is a doubt with Krul likely to play in goal instead. The medical staff are hopeful Ameobi will make the game but Nolan sits out through suspension as Tiote and Perch return. Stephen Ireland is set to make his debut for Newcastle tonight.
In the Premier League, Newcastle’s record against United at St James’ Park isn’t great but these games tend to guarantee goals. There has never been a 0-0 between the two sides in the Premier League era at Newcastle – each game played there averages 3.5 goals scored. Newcastle have managed just the three wins over United on their own patch with the last one coming 9 and a half years ago. The two sides met on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford with United winning 3-0 – goals from Berbatov, Fletcher and Giggs. The last meeting at St James’ Park was just over two years ago and saw United win 2-1 thanks to goals from Berbatov and Rooney. Jonas Gutierrez could make his 100th league appearance for Newcastle tonight, while Steven Taylor could make his 150th career league appearance. With two wins in their last 12 games, Newcastle will be hoping for better.
Enough on Newcastle… onto Man United and my predicted line up:
The list of absentees appears to be shrinking every week. Ferguson has confirmed Hargreaves season is over whilst Lindegaard is also likely to miss the end of the campaign. Fletcher is back and training but still not ready to play whilst Rafael’s situation is somewhat unclear – he was unavailable for the weekend and is therefore unlikely to play tonight. As Evans returns from suspension, Scholes misses the first of three games for a red card.
I’ve gone for a 4-4-2 – United need to attack and win this game. Edwin seems to be fully fit again and so in front of him I’ve picked the same back four that started on Saturday against Man City – O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra. It is feasible that there may be some rotation with Ferdinand rested and one of Smalling or Evans brought in; whilst there has been some suggestion that Fabio will get a game ahead of Evra.
In the midfield, the absence of Scholes and Flecher leaves Gibson, Giggs or Anderson to partner Carrick. I have no hesitation in selecting Anderson – his energy, thrust and ability to carry the ball forwards was evident when he came on against Man City and with Carrick sitting deep this would be a good partnership. It was the partnership that seemed to be working so well when United were playing good football at the end of 2010. Giggs should return to the XI having missed out against City, and I’d play him on the left hand side which leaves one of Nani or Valencia to start on the right. I’ve chosen Nani as I think he’s been key this season and Valencia could have more of an impact off the bench later on. Up front, Rooney will return from suspension and he should reunite his excellent partnership with Chicharito – I would expect him to start just behind the Mexican in the ‘number 10’ role. Michael Owen is returning to his former club and will no doubt want to get some minutes.
United remain top with a lead of 6 points now having played the same number of games as Arsenal. The defeat to Man City on Saturday was a first loss in 8 and no doubt United will want to bounce back strongly – they’ve won their last 3 league games, most recently beating Fulham 2-0. A win would put even more pressure on Arsenal who are at Spurs on Wednesday.
Recent form shows United 3rd in the form league with 12 points taken from a possible 18 in the last six games. At home, United have been almost unstoppable but away from home their form has been heavily criticised this year. Their current away form is the 4th best in the league with 9 points taken from the last 18 available. In fact, United’s away record isn’t so bad, it’s the third best in the league and could be better if they weren’t the side that had drawn the most number of games away from home. Similarly, United have had no problem finding the net on their travels, with only Chelsea and Arsenal scoring more however their 23 goals conceded is bettered by 6 other teams including Wigan.
In Dimitar Berbatov United have the league’s top goalscorer (21 goals) as well as the 6th and 7th top scorers (Chicharito with 11 and Rooney with 10), whilst Nani is the league’s top assister (18 assists; Rooney is joint 2nd with 11). Chicharito has scored his 11 league goals from just 15 efforts on target. If Ferdinand starts, it’ll be his 350th start for United.
Saturday has to go down as a minor blip in the season – the league is the priority and the one trophy everyone wants to win more than anything else. I expect a strong team given that there is time to recover ahead of Everton on Satuday. Therefore I predict a 2-1 win for United.
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AUTHOR: – Doron