Always a curious encounter this. The two Uniteds are enormous clubs. Both unwieldy in their own way, and similarly both under-performing but for different reasons.
On a base level you could reduce each teams’ problems to two men, Mike Ashley and José Mourinho.
Man United have ejected their problem and all looks rosy. Newcastle may not get rid of their controversial owner any time soon.
When you go beyond the ego and the drama, looking instead at the football and the form, the eye is instantly drawn to the red half of Manchester. Incoherent and calamitous against Liverpool in Mourinho’s last game, the same side has since won three in a row, scoring 12 goals, conceding three.
The striking differences don’t end there. The change in the players’ demeanor at the club has been stark. Personified of course by one Paul Pogba.
All of the above being considered, things do indeed look rosy.
A word of caution however, this is the fourth game in a four game run that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s predecessor would have likely won as well. An acid test of sorts for everything positive, Pogba included, awaits at Wembley in the form of Spurs on Sunday, January 13th.
For now, their supporters and detractors will have to make do with examining a likely win at St James’ Park. Even considering the fact that Newcastle have in the past posed problems for the 20 times top-flight champions.
Newcastle United fans would likely be sounding the alarm with far greater conviction if it weren’t for the abject performances of their fellow relegation rivals.
The Magpies somehow went 10 games at the start of the season without a win. Since winning three on the bounce straight after that, they’ve won just one from their next seven.
Both sides have clear weaknesses, the contrasts are strong, and therefore we can hope for an entertaining game.
Despite Newcastle’s poor results this season, they actually have a better performing defence than their opponents this evening. From a Manchester United perspective, they have already conceded four more goals than they had in the entirety of last season.
Rafa Benitez and his side might hope to get some change out United. However that hope will be tempered by their own abysmal scoring record – with 15 goals only bottom side Huddersfield have scored less. This game represents Man United’s best chance of what would be a third clean sheet this season.
It’s safe to say Benitez will set his side to defend deep, with the hope being they might catch Solksjaer’s men on the counter attack. Naturally United will be looking to apply early pressure. If they get an early goal then there’s an entertaining game in store.
If Pogba and co turn up at St James’ Park in the goal scoring form of late then they should simply have too much fire power for the Magpies.
All of the above being considered, Newcastle United did win this fixture last year, and truly should have taken something from Old Trafford in October after going to 2-0 up in the first half. Expectations on this occasion will be lessened by the fact that they’ve failed to take a single point from any of their encounters with the top six sides in the league this season.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a time in their history where they’ve been under as much pressure.” In TAG Heuer's Pressure Moments series, @IanWright0 and Jamie Redknapp look back at this season’s @ManUtd v @NUFC classic! Go to https://t.co/6IvKmZQWyT for more! #DontCrackUnderPressure pic.twitter.com/VH7d0NKIMv
— TAG Heuer (@TAGHeuer) January 1, 2019
The home side will be missing both Florian Lejeune and Federico Fernandez to injury. Ki Sung-Yeung is off on Asia Cup duty and Ciaran Clark faces a late fitness test on an ankle knock.
Eric Bailly is suspended for United thanks to the straight red card he earned for his daft lunge late on against Bournemouth. Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo are absent through injury while Alexis Sanchez is set to feature after working his way back to full fitness over recent weeks.
Three games is not a great sample size to judge Ole Gunnar Solksjaer as a Manchester United manager. I suspect that the departure of Mourinho was the main reason behind their upturn lately. All Solksjaer has had to do is keep out of the way. Player power can be good when a squad as powerful as United’s starts to apply themselves.
Newcastle United need to start scoring points and goals. A trip to Stamford Bridge at the weekend and tonight’s fixture will likely yield neither.
Manchester United -1 to win