Manchester United travel to St. James’ Park on Sunday to take on struggling Newcastle. It’s been a great week for the Reds — drawing a bit closer to City at the top and pulling further ahead of the chasing pack below — and now they face a relegation candidate with a chance to strengthen their hold on second place.
After an extremely poor showing at Wembley against Spurs, United bounced back with a solid weekend victory over Huddersfield Town. José Mourinho’s decision to sit Paul Pogba ignited a media firestorm, but that obscured a comprehensive team performance against a club that United will play again in the FA Cup next weekend.
Tottenham ended United’s six-match clean sheet streak in emphatic fashion, but a changed backline shut the door on Huddersfield Town, holding the Terriers without a shot on goal. It will be interesting to see whether Luke Shaw or Marcos Rojo move up in the pecking order after strong displays at the weekend.
One player certain to come back into the team is the aforementioned Pogba. Whether his dropping was performance-based or just rotation — and Mourinho insists it was not a punishment — the French midfielder will be back in action at Newcastle.
That would mean a return to the bench for 21-year-old Scott McTominay, but his composed display against Huddersfield Town surely made an impression on the manager. He won’t play every week, but expect to see much more of the academy product in the months ahead.
United’s injury situation remains much the same — Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Marouane Fellaini all sidelined for the foreseeable future. Fellaini underwent knee surgery this week and will now be out for up to six weeks. But there’s better news on Bailly and Zlatan, with both targeting returns later this month.
The club appears to have dodged an injury bullet with Marcus Rashford. He reported leg pain after the Huddersfield Town victory, but has been training this week and could still be named in the squad for Newcastle. While the 20-year-old attacker has fallen out of the starting eleven, he has proven to be a Mourinho favorite off the sub’s bench. In fact, Rashford has played in almost every Premier League match this season — missing only last month’s loss to Spurs.
When Manchester United and Newcastle met earlier this season at Old Trafford, the men in red easily took all three points. A Dwight Gayle strike put Newcastle on the board first, but that opener seemed mostly to jolt United to life. Goals from Anthony Martial, Chris Smalling, Paul Pogba, and Romelu Lukaku added up to a 4-1 win.
Newcastle — just one point above the relegation line in a very crowded bottom-half of the table — cannot afford another lopsided loss. Goal differential might be the difference between Premier League survival or a quick return to the Championship.
Knowing this, Rafa Benitez should set his squad up in a primarily defensive formation. If Newcastle keep compact at the back and look to hit United on the break when chances arise, perhaps they can cause some trouble. These aren’t the tactics you would ordinarily expect a home team to use, but Newcastle have enjoyed little success at St. James’ Park this season.
After drawing with Burnley at home last month, Benitez voiced his frustration to The Telegraph: “Am I concerned by our home form? In terms of performance, no. In terms of results, yes.”
Now, Manchester United — and a gleeful José Mourinho — can pile even more misery on the Tyneside club. If the Reds play to their potential and put their hosts to the sword, Newcastle could easily find themselves in the drop zone by Sunday night.
And the situation might be even worse for Newcastle off the field. Mike Ashley’s comically slow attempt to sell his club meant little first-team investment during the January transfer window. While other rivals strengthened for the upcoming relegation bloodbath, Newcastle’s board limited Benitez to just a few loan signings — notably Islam Slimani and Kenedy.
Slimani, on loan from Leicester City, has not yet featured for his new club due to a thigh injury. The 29-year-old forward returned to training this week and looks likely to make his debut on Sunday. While Benitez cannot afford to turn his nose up at any squad addition, Slimani has managed just one Premier League goal this season for the Foxes.
Last time out, Newcastle surrendered a second-half lead at Crystal Palace and drew 1-1. A point from Selhurst Park is a good return for most Premier League teams, but Benitez will be worried by Palace’s overall dominance. On another day, it could have easily been another Newcastle loss.
Other than a small blip over Christmas, Manchester United have shown a ruthless streak against such struggling opposition. Don’t expect anything less on Sunday against Newcastle. With big matches ahead in the FA Cup and Champions League, the Reds will look to make quick work of the Toon. And nothing would make José Mourinho happier than pushing his old foe Benitez one step closer to the drop.