When Newcastle United step out onto the Old Trafford pitch on Saturday afternoon, they will come up against a home side spoiling for a fight. Manchester United players and management have endured a torturous fortnight of second-guessing and criticism. October was not a good month for the club — seeing their spot at the top of the table evaporate — and November got off to an equally rotten start with the 1-0 loss to Chelsea.
Saturday will also reignite the oft-contentious rivalry between José Mourinho and Rafa Benitez. Ever since their famous Champions League tussles while at Chelsea and Liverpool, these two managers have barely hidden their contempt for each other.
Benitez brings his Magpies to Manchester on a bit of a downturn in form. Life back in the Premier League got off to a surprisingly bright start for the Tyneside club — especially after a disappointing summer in the transfer market. Rumors flew all summer that Benitez was on the verge of walking out after lackluster support from ownership.
But Rafa stuck around and coaxed a great start out of his squad. Of late, though, the strong performances have tapered off and, after consecutive 1-0 losses to Burnley and Bournemouth, Newcastle sits smack dab in mid-table.
A lot of the club’s recent struggles can be traced back to injuries — a problem Manchester United can well relate to. Influential winger Christian Atsu suffered a thigh injury in the Bournemouth loss, which he then aggravated during the international break with Ghana. Captain Jamaal Lascelles likewise hobbled off with an ankle complaint. Mikel Merino, one of Newcastle’s standout players so far this season, went down a week earlier with a bad back and has been out of action ever since. All three remain big question marks for this weekend.
On the Manchester United injury front, the past week has brought both good and bad tidings. Paul Pogba finally returned to training and moved ever closer to re-joining the starting eleven. Having Pogba back out on the pitch should instill some confidence in a squad that badly needs a boost. His absence has really been felt in recent weeks, as the once potent United attack has too often sputtered out in midfield. Early reports insist that Pogba is unlikely to feature on Saturday, but his return should nonetheless come soon.
#Pogback may be imminent, but Phil Jones and his fragile physique have cast a fresh pall over the club. Jones left England’s friendly versus Germany after only 25 minutes with an apparent recurrence of his thigh injury.
Tough questions should be asked of Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate on just why an injury-risk like Phil Jones was even playing during a meaningless international fixture. Not to mention that he was already carrying this knock. Southgate claims that Jones’s injury is but a minor one, but Manchester United fans know all too well that such a thing doesn’t exist when it comes to Phil Jones.
Jones gets teased a lot about his checkered injury history and penchant for odd facial expressions during matches, but the thought of him missing any time is no laughing matter. The center-back has been immense for United all season and Mourinho can ill afford to have Jones on the shelf. Plus, every Jones injury moves Victor Lindelöf one step closer to playing meaningful minutes.
Some good can come from international friendlies, though, as Romelu Lukaku finally found his scoring boots while on Belgium duty. Big Rom has not scored in his last seven matches for United, but tallied goals against both Mexico and Japan this week. In fact, his goal in the Japan friendly not only won the match, but also made him Belgium’s all-time top scorer. Hopefully he can bring that clinical touch back with him to Manchester.
For this is a match that United must win. October (and the first week of November) put a serious dent in the club’s title challenge and they need to get back on track immediately. The other clubs at the top of the table all look to be hitting their strides and Mourinho’s men need full points every time out or risk being left behind.