After the disappointment of drawing with Benfica in midweek, Manchester United must now turn back to the task of retaining their Premier League crown. Newcastle United are the visitors to Old Trafford on Saturday, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men cannot afford to let their European frustration spill into domestic affairs if they hope to peg back Manchester City.
Ferguson is, however, fond of reminding people that United never do things the easy way, and Newcastle are still fourth in the Premier League. The qualities that brought them to such a high spot did not disappear during their last 90 minutes in Manchester. Demba Ba is still a dangerous goal scorer, Yohan Cabaye is still a fluid midfielder, and Fabricio Coloccini is still a commanding centre-back. United also have to contend with another blow to their midfield, after it was confirmed Anderson will be missing until February with the knee injury that has already kept him out since early November. The Brazilian began the season as part of a midfield axis with Tom Cleverly, but both players have since been struck down, although Cleverly is believed to be much closer to returning.
With three 1-0 victories from their last three Premier League games, United have evidently been at pains to sure up their backline after the game that immediately precedes this binary run, the 6-1 home drubbing by City. This nevertheless raises two curious issues. First, why did United’s defensive obduracy not translate onto the continental stage, where United conceded twice against Benfica after not conceding at all in their prior five games in three different competitions – although the quality of opposition might be the most likely answer. Secondly, where has the free-scoring United of August and September gone? The one that put three past Tottenham Hotspur, eight past Arsenal, five past Bolton Wanderers and three past Chelsea. Since drawing 1-1 with Liverpool on October 15 United have only scored more than one goal in a game three times – once against Aldershot Town and twice against Otelul Galati.
Finding the balance between the domestic defiance on show in the last trio of games and the overwhelming firepower of the early season could be the difference between United retaining the Premier League and watching the ribbons change from their red to a City light blue, and against Newcastle this weekend would be an ideal place to start.
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