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After coming away with three Champions League points in Cluj on Wednesday, Man United face a very tough away trip to Newcastle on Sunday. The team will be trying to get its league form back into some semblance of order after last weekend’s surprising, pulsating but ultimately deserved defeat at home to Spurs. Newcastle come into the match on the back of a 3-0 Europa League win against Bordeaux in the Europa League. As always, we look forward to hearing from fans of both teams.
Recent History and Issues
We won’t need too much reminding about what happened the last time this fixture was played in the league. Newcastle came away as 3-0 victors, with Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye overpowering Giggs and Carrick in the middle, and Demba Ba bullying Phil Jones, who also notched up an own goal. At Old Trafford only two weeks ago, the two sides played out a very enjoyable League Cup game, which ended 2-1 to Manchester United.
Interestingly – or worryingly, perhaps – the issues that plagued United last time are still front and centre for Sunday’s match. We are depleted at the back, as Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are our only fit senior central defenders, while Newcastle’s Demba Ba is scoring goals once again, and leads the league currently with 6 goals from 5 starts. In central midfield, the problems of the past few years have been bewilderingly neglected. Exposed again in the Spurs game, the supposed “engine room” of our side continues to look more like an entrance hall for opposing midfielders to saunter through at their leisure. While dominant as always when facing teams that sit deep and surrender possession easily, Man United have consistently struggled against sides which press aggressively through robust central players. Needless to say, this could once again be a problem against the duo of Tiote and Cabaye, who at their best offer a very good balance of combative and creative qualities.
Newcastle come into the game on the back of some indifferent league form, with only 2 wins in their first 6 games, and their most recent outing being a 2-2 draw with Reading – a game they probably were expected to win.
Possible Lineups and Matchups
For the home side, central defensive rock Fabricio Coloccini is out with a hamstring problem, and Steven Taylor is also missing. James Perch should therefore deputise, alongside Mike Williamson. Ex-Red Danny Simpson should start at right back, with former Inter wunderkind Davide Santon lining up on the other flank – a strong and probably underrated pair of fullbacks. In midfield, Tiote was an injury doubt, but seems to have recovered – so it seems likely that their front six will be as expected, with Jonas, Tiote, Cabaye and Ben Arfa lining up behind the dangerous Senegalese front pairing of Ba and Papiss Cissé.
Even with the injury woes mentioned above, Sir Alex now has such a large squad at his disposal that it’s becoming more difficult than ever to predict what his starting lineup will be from game to game. The goalkeeper rotation that’s featured this season seems like continuing – Anders Lindegaard has been between the posts for our last four games in the league, and I expect him to continue there tomorrow. Rightly or wrongly, David de Gea is still considered a bit vulnerable against crosses and long balls, and with the Magpies carrying a significant aerial threat, I have a feeling Anders will get the nod for that reason. In defence, Rafael, Rio, Evans and Evra look probable to start, barring any further injuries or misfortunes.
More interesting questions arise in midfield, where the boss tinkered with a very narrow “diamond” on Tuesday – with Fletcher at the base, Anderson and Cleverley shuttling, and Rooney at the head assuming playmaking duties. I doubt that such a system will be used on Sunday, but it seems possible that Tom Cleverley could start instead of Paul Scholes, to offer a more energetic alternative alongside Carrick. Fletcher looked very positive in that withdrawn role on Tuesday, and if fit would be perfect for this type of match. Considering that he played 90 minutes against Cluj, and that he’s still easing his way back into the first team, Sunday’s matchup may come a bit too soon for him, however.
In the attacking roles, Nani should take up the right-sided position, while Robin and Wayne could be set for their first league start together. Things are a bit more uncertain on the left, where any one of Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs or Shinji Kagawa could play from the start. Personally, I think Kagawa should be given the chance, as he played quite well there in the second half against Spurs.
Key Matchup: Evra v. Ben Arfa
While Demba Ba has been banging in the goals recently, I think the key battle in this match will be between two Frenchmen on the flank – specifically Hatem ben Arfa against Patrice Evra. Evra’s form has split opinions over the last 18 months or so, and his constant motoring in support of the attack has sometimes left him exposed defensively – Cluj’s goal on Tuesday being the most recent example. It’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the threat of the fabulously gifted Ben Arfa, a winger who possesses brilliant dribbling ability allied to clever passing and a wicked shot. Given that Ben Arfa will probably be playing on his “wrong” side (a left-footer playing on the right), it will be essential that Evra communicates with his central defenders and midfielders on how to pick him up when he inevitably drifts inside looking to create a chance or have a go himself. On the flip side, though, Ben Arfa isn’t particularly known for his defensive commitment, and Patrice should have some joy in getting forward down the left. This could be very important given that we’re currently short-staffed down the left side, as Ashley Young is injured and Giggsy has been almost invisible in his last few appearances.
Both teams are heavily depleted in defence, both have only kept 1 clean sheet in 6 Premier League games so far, and both have strikers in excellent goalscoring form (Ba and van Persie respectively). As a result, I fully expect a dour 0-0… err, wait, that’s not right… I expect it to be a highly entertaining game, with a nice clash of styles.
Though Newcastle haven’t yet been at the level they were at last season, this is the kind of occasion that could see them raise their game. Whichever side can take control of the midfield early on will probably get the win. If Evra can get to grips with ben Arfa’s trickery and if the defence can handle his darts into central positions, it would give the Reds a much better chance of prevailing in this difficult fixture.