Resurgent Manchester United ring in the new year at St. James’ Park against struggling Newcastle. Rafa Benitez’s side languishes in 15th place, only three points from the relegation line and with just one win in seven. Times are tough on Tyneside.
Not so in Manchester, though, where United have won three on the bounce and found a new lease on life under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The caretaker boss continued his sizzling start on Sunday with an emphatic 4-1 win over visiting Bournemouth. This trip to Newcastle caps off a busy spell of four matches in twelve days, so expect Solskjaer to keep rotating his squad.
For Bournemouth, Solskjaer made four changes — bringing Eric Bailly, Ander Herrera, Ashley Young, and Anthony Martial back into the starting eleven. Romelu Lukaku returned to the bench after a weeklong absence, while Alexis Sánchez came up just short of fitness. He’s not far off, though.
No matter who dons the red shirts these days, it’s the same story — total domination. United jumped all over their visitors, allowing Bournemouth little of the ball and always looking dangerous going forward. Paul Pogba scored twice (the goalpost later robbed him of a hat trick), Rashford continued his superb play with a goal, and even Lukaku found the back of the net.
Okay, Big Rom looked well offside on the play, but his calm finish bodes well for the future. The sooner Lukaku gets back to his prolific form of last season (27 goals in all competitions), the better for Manchester United.
Just about the only criticism voiced by Solskjaer this week was his side’s inability to keep a clean sheet. He’s still waiting. Bournemouth’s goal came when United already led 3-0, but the defense remains a major work in progress.
“You can’t switch off for one second in this league,” Solskjaer said after the win. “You cannot switch off.”
“We are looking for that clean sheet,” he continued. “We are looking for that foundation to let those front four just go and enjoy themselves. When you know you are keeping a clean sheet at the back, it is easier to perform and to create chances.”
If United make this defensive breakthrough against Newcastle on Wednesday, they’ll do it without Eric Bailly. The 24-year-old Ivorian picked up a late red card this weekend and will miss the next three matches. Bailly seemed on edge all afternoon and finally went too far with a reckless challenge on Ryan Fraser in the 79th minute.
“Eric knows it is a rash challenge,” Solskjaer said. “He doesn’t have to do it. Just stay on your feet. But, once in a while, when the boys are excited, we want to win the ball back and sometimes we mistime a challenge. Eric is the first one to accept that he made a mistake.”
With Chris Smalling already sidelined with a sore foot, plan on plenty of Phil Jones at center back to kick off the new year.
Newcastle limp into 2019 fresh off a 1-1 draw at Watford over the weekend. Salomon Rondon headed the Toon into the lead, but a late Watford equalizer sent the visitors back to Tyneside with just a single point.
To be fair, that Rondon goal marked a huge improvement on recent form. Newcastle couldn’t even muster a single shot on goal against Fulham, before capitulating at Anfield by a 4-0 scoreline. Rafa Benitez has worked wonders with little money and a threadbare squad over the years, but his magic looks to be running out.
“We know it will be tough,” Benitez conceded, “but if we play with the same intensity as today we can compete against anyone.”
That Watford-Newcastle match should give Solskjaer plenty to think about ahead of Wednesday. Benitez’s side conceded plenty of possession, content to soak up the pressure and then hit hard on the break. Newcastle controlled the balance of the game and must feel aggrieved at falling short of victory.
Defender Federico Fernandez’s hip injury noticeably unsettled the backline and Watford pounced for the draw. He’s doubtful for United’s visit on Wednesday.
In early October, Newcastle pushed Manchester United to the limit at Old Trafford. The Reds stormed back from an early 2-0 deficit with three goals in a thrilling final twenty minutes. Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, and Alexis all got on the scoresheet. Hopefully, United can secure all three points at St. James’ Park without similar late dramatics.
It will be fascinating to watch Ole Gunnar Solskjaer match wits with Rafa Benitez, a longtime manager renowned for his tactical expertise. Talk about an important yardstick to measure the caretaker’s prospects for the full-time job.
The early returns on Ole have been outstanding, with United rapidly closing the gap with Arsenal in 5th and confidence soaring at all levels of the club. If nothing else, Solskjaer has everyone believing that 2019 could be a very special year.