Club Focus – Manchester United – Tired United fail to break down stubborn Newcastle

If a week is a long time in politics, then it is an eternity in football. Only a week ago Manchester United had the implacable momentum of a team destined to lift a minimum of one trophy with the potential for more. Two games later and they have been ousted from the FA Cup by their local rivals Manchester City and held to a goalless draw by Newcastle United. The FA Cup defeat will have been painful enough but failure to capitalise on Arsenal’s dramatic collapse against Liverpool will add insult to injury. The major talking point from the game will be the decision to book Javier Hernandez in the dying minutes rather than award a penalty but the unarguable conclusion will be that Manchester United were unable to break down a well-drilled Newcastle defence despite the fillip of their closest rivals dropping points on Sunday and the return of Wayne Rooney.

Nevertheless, even a point at Newcastle could prove invaluable as Arsenal have a very tricky away game against Tottenham Hotspur to come today and their mental fragility is there for all to see. Should Manchester United manage to pick up all three points at home to Everton on Saturday then Arsenal and Chelsea will go into their games against Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United respectively knowing that victory is an absolute necessity. Indeed, from now until the end of the season Manchester United play before Arsenal, a fact decried as unfair by Arsene Wenger and hints at the nerves currently running through the Arsenal camp.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad is definitely feeling the effects of playing twice a week for an extended period and this run is due to carry on for another few weeks until Schalke, Arsenal and Chelsea have been met on the pitch. While Ferguson has been the master of rotation in recent years the stress placed on the squad certainly showed as the team’s tempo dipped to sluggish levels against the Magpies. Even with Rooney having an enforced rest and Hernandez and Ryan Giggs not starting against Manchester City, the Red Devils were last night unable to move and pass with the vibrancy that is required to unlock a well organised defensive unit.

It will be a test of Ferguson’s man-management to see whether he can restore the sense of momentum that United had in the build-up to the semi-final, particularly with the first leg of the Champions League tie against Schalke away from home. At Old Trafford Manchester United have been imperious and three points against Everton will be expected, but a trip to Germany against a side that spanked Inter Milan over two legs will be an arduous task. Returning to Manchester with the tie still in the balance would be a very good result for the league leaders but whether Ferguson’s men have the legs to carry themselves over the finishing line, both domestically and in Europe, suddenly looks far more doubtful than it did only a week ago.

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