|photo by opensourceway||via PhotoRee|
Manchester United traveled to the North East of England and the stadium formerly known as St. James Park on Wednesday, to meet Newcastle in a game that many called a "must-win" in order for the Reds to keep pace with City at the top of the League table. With Tottenham nipping at their heels from the other side, several United players spoke openly pre-game about how important it would be to get a result in the mid-week contest. Instead, the Reds left Newcastle with their tail between their legs, well beaten and cursing their fate. What follows are thoughts and observations on the critical 3-0 Tyneside loss :
o Newcastle is a club that will be badly hurt by the African Cup of Nations. Not only is leading scorer Demba Ba heading off at the weekend, so too is Cheik Tiote, a key driver of the Magpies' defensive midfield. Some clubs -- the Reds included -- could withstand the loss of two starters without missing much, but for a club like Newcastle to lose arguably their two most valuable players at the same time could be a real problem. Ba looked absolutely lethal last night, and his first half tally was a striker's goal of the highest order; on the flip side of the ball, Tiote hassled and harried United into too many turnovers to recount. It's unfortunate that United had to play Newcastle this week and not next, but that's how the schedule works.
o Fergie has no sentimentality -- none. Witness the current United striker situation: at the beginning of the season, Danny Welbeck was paired with Wayne Rooney to lead the line, in part because of Welbeck's form, and in part because of the injury Chicharito picked up during the US pre-season tour. Later, when Welbeck went down with an injury, it was the young Mexican who was preferred as Rooney's strike partner, while Dimitar Berbatov continued to languish on the bench. But due to the Bulgarian's form over the past month -- with 6 goals in his last 4 games -- it was Berba who was handed the start again last night, while Chicharito now seems slotted in as fourth choice. Never one to rely on history as his guide, Sir Alex is all about "What have you done for me lately...?"
o And despite all that, my guess is Sir Alex left the game last night wondering exactly who his best two strikers are at the current moment. Berbatov was largely ineffective -- to be fair, he didn't get much in the way of quality service -- necessitating the introduction of Welbeck. And when that wasn't deemed sufficient, Sir Alex also threw Chicharito into the mix. But with none of the four strikers finding the net, just who has the hot hand going into the City game?
o The penalty call on Rio in the home fixture may have been evened out by referee Howard Webb's non-call in the first half last night. At the very least, Ferdinand's challenge which sent Demba Ba sprawling in the box was significantly clumsier than the challenge for which he was penalized at Old Trafford. Alan Pardew was so incensed by the decision (and another non-call by Webb which followed) that he resembled someone Howard Webb would lock up in his day job more than he did the coach of Newcastle.
o The defense looked wobbly for the second straight game, even with the return of veteran Rio Ferdinand to the lineup. Newcastle looked dangerous virtually every time they had the ball in the offensive half, exposing United's defense for lack of pace as well as poor positioning. The Reds managed to respond initially to Nemanja Vidic's loss with a string of clean sheets, but further injuries have necessitated playing several players out of position, and the massive loss of Vidic finally seems to be taking its full effect. The defensive swagger and bravado that was there just two weeks ago -- the result of 4 shutouts in 5 games -- has been replaced by the same shaky panic that we saw a number of times earlier this season.
o I'm trying to figure out what Phil Jones' best position is, 'cause at this point in the season it sure isn't central defense. I love the guy going forward, but would prefer to see Jonny Evans or Chris Smalling starting ahead of him in the middle.
o This United squad doesn't seem to have the same come-from-behind spirit as its predecessors. The addition of a bunch of new players (Jones, De Gea / Lindegaard, Young), combined with the loss of several key others (Fletcher, Scholes, Neville and Van Der Sar) seems to have disrupted the team's chemistry to the point where I don't believe they're any more confident than I am about their ability to get back into a game like last evening's.
o What is it with Danny Simpson and goal line clearances against Manchester United? Again last night, Simpson -- a self professed life-long United fan -- cleared a ball off the line that cost United a goal and maybe more. If United lose the title this season by four points or less, look no further than your fellow Red, Danny Simpson.
This is Farlieonfootie for January 5.