Fresh from remembering the Munich Air Disaster victims 60 years on from the tragedy with a moving ceremony at Old Trafford on Tuesday, United make the long trip north-east to face a struggling Newcastle United side this Sunday (2.15pm kick-off). The dramatic final few minutes of the game at Anfield last Sunday, which saw Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur share the spoils in a 2-2 draw, coupled with Chelsea’s 4-1 thrashing at Watford on Monday evening, mean the Red Devils now have a 5-point cushion back to the Merseysiders in 3rd position ahead of this weekend’s fixtures.
Jose Mourinho rang the changes for our last game at home to Huddersfield Town, with Phil Jones dropped from the matchday squad altogether after his hapless own-goal at Wembley last week, and midfield maestro Paul Pogba dropped to the bench after a below-par effort against Tottenham, replaced with youngster Scott McTominay, who played well against the Terriers in our 2-0 victory. Despite that, it would be a genuine surprise (and a personal disappointment for me) to see the big Frenchman again left out of the starting XI at St. James’ Park.
For their part, the Magpies have endured a season of struggle, manager Rafa Benitez having been badly hamstrung during the January transfer window by the breakdown in negotiations between owner Mike Ashley and entrepreneur Amanda Staveley’s “shell company”, who were attempting to purchase the club on behalf of Middle-Eastern interests. That breakdown, which threatened to turn publicly vindictive at one point, effectively left the Spaniard with very little funding to finance any deals to bring some much-needed reinforcements into his squad, their only notable arrival being striker Islam Slimani on loan from Leicester City. Slimani, despite enduring a frustrating time at the King Power Stadium, is a very useful forward, pacy and powerful in the air; he has struggled with a thigh problem recently but is rumoured to be fit enough to play against the Red Devils.
United have a decent record at St. James’ Park, and I would like to think that record will be maintained on Sunday afternoon, as despite having the passionate crowd behind them, Newcastle United do not possess the same quality throughout their squad as we do, and we need to make our superiority count.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (fluid 4-3-3)
GK: David de Gea – our keeper has, predictably, been the subject of yet more “moving to Real Madrid in the summer” rumours over recent days, but hopefully Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois’ apparent admission of having amorous feelings for the Spanish capital city will see him, and not de Gea, as the object of Real’s affections come June. David will provide a formidable barrier to the Magpies’ players on Sunday.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony ‘picks himself’. If there’s a more consistent right wing-back in England right now, I’ve not seen him. He wouldn’t be my captain (since his English isn’t as good as you’d need from a leader out there, and he isn’t a vocal type of lad anyway) but he would be in my team every single week, easily. Christian Atsu will do well to get past Tony, that’s for sure.
LB: Luke Shaw – Luke regained his starting place against Huddersfield Town, and as has become normal, looked more than comfortable out there. Rumours persist that his recent form has persuaded the club to consider offering Luke a new contract to extend his stay in Manchester, and I certainly hope those rumours have a basis in truth! Delighted to see the lad back enjoying his football.
CBs: Phil Jones & Marcos Rojo –With the good news that Eric Bailly is on the verge of a return from injury, and after losing his place last week after his mishaps against Tottenham, I hope to see Phil Jones return for this game. I think Jose was overly harsh on the boy; he was FAR from the worst defender on the park at Wembley (that would be Chris Smalling…) and I think he and Bailly should be the centre-half partnership whenever everyone is fit. I’d bring Rojo in for this game; he’s solid and will enjoy a tussle with Joselu and/or Slimani.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Scott McTominay – Matic was tidy against Huddersfield Town, who didn’t bother him much with defensive duties, and I’d bring young McTominay in alongside him, both as additional defensive cover when Newcastle have the ball, and because he can get forward to support the attack whenever United are pressing the Magpies back into their area.
AM (C): Paul Pogba – Pogba was restricted to a substitute role last week, but I hope and expect to see our talisman restored to the starting XI this weekend, and hopefully as the attacking midfielder in a ‘three’, where his outstanding abilities with the football can come to the fore.
RF: Alexis Sanchez – Against the Terriers, the ‘new boy’ again looked what we already know he is from his Arsenal days: a man who will give you 110% effort, never shy from a challenge and always be looking to get an attacking move underway. The likes of Javier Manquillo and Paul Dummett are unlikely to enjoy their afternoon.
LF: Anthony Martial – The maverick young Frenchman has been in irresistible form recently, and has won the Club’s January “Player of the Month” award. I’d expect Tony to give the Geordie right-back, DeAndre Yedlin, a tough afternoon assignment.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – the big man grabbed another excellent goal to open the scoring against David Wagner’s men last time out, and although he was otherwise quiet in that game, you simply can’t afford to take your eyes off him when he’s around the penalty area, and I’d expect Romelu to give the Newcastle defence plenty of work to do on Sunday.
BENCH: Romero, Rashford, Lindelof, Lingard, Herrera, Mata, Young.
The big challenge for Jose Mourinho’s men for the remainder of the Premier League season is to maintain or try to increase the gap between ourselves and whoever occupies 3rd place in the league table, currently Liverpool. With Tottenham Hotspur facing Arsenal in the North London Derby at lunchtime on Saturday, and United’s other chief rivals (Liverpool and Chelsea) not playing until after we face Rafa Benitez’ men, this is a great opportunity for United to apply pressure to those chasing us for 2nd spot by winning this game. Whilst it’s far from a ‘gimme’, I will be very disappointed if we can’t do just that, because Newcastle United are amongst most people’s tips for relegation for a reason.
I actually feel really sorry for Rafa Benitez, who has manfully tried to make the best of what he’s got there, and is rightly very highly regarded by the Geordie faithful. The shenanigans from Mike Ashley have been, predictably, destabilizing to the club, and you have to wonder why the owner doesn’t “sell up” and move on, since he clearly has no genuine interest in the well-being of the Magpies.
United need to gain control of proceedings early, take several of the chances we should create, and manage the game from there. If we can silence the Geordie faithful early, then their home advantage should count for little….if we fall behind, it could be an uncomfortable afternoon.