Looking for a stress-free match in between the massive two-legged challenge of overthrowing European champions Bayern Munich, Manchester United could not have wished for better opponents than Newcastle United.
It appears everyone at St James’ Park has long-since thrown in the towel, with the exception of the fans who continue to suffer through their team’s lackluster performances. Rather than fund an assault to try and get in among the European places, owner Mike Ashley appeared to decide that he’d rather take the profits from the sale of their most important player and settle for a season of midtable mediocrity. Yohan Cabaye’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain in January and the failure to sign a replacement sent a clear message. If that wasn’t enough, Alan Pardew’s ridiculous touchline antics deprived the team of their manager for seven matches. It is no surprise then that the players have followed the example from above by downing tools. The performance in last week’s match with Southampton was embarrassing and the scoreline could have been far more emphatic than 4-0.
It is a far cry from the wave of optimism following Newcastle’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford in early December that took them four points above the Premier League champions and only three points off fourth place. The man who scored the winner that day: Yohan Cabaye. Since the France international’s departure, Newcastle have taken a paltry nine points from 10 games.
Manchester United have hardly enjoyed the happiest times since that December day, either. However, David Moyes comes into the return fixture arguably at his highest point of what has been a horrid first season in charge. With his side predicted to take a sound beating at the hands of Bayern Munich on Tuesday, Moyes reveled in an underdog setting that suits his skills and traits seemingly far better than leading a side required to take the initiative in the vast majority of matches they play.
As at Everton, Moyes showed that he could set up a side to defend doggedly. A 1-1 draw still gives Bayern the advantage and, with United needing to score in Munich, Moyes’ defensive game plan is unlikely to be sufficient. But the result has eased the pressure on his shoulders and may help win respect back from his squad of players, many of whom appeared to be less than enthused to be playing for him in recent times.
There still remains little sign that Moyes is the right man to lead United past this summer. His lack of trust in the creative players at his disposal -- despite having spent a huge sum to bringing in one of them, Juan Mata -- is symptomatic of his frustratingly pragmatic approach. With his in-form former club Everton awaiting in a week’s time, it is unlikely to be long before the major question marks over his management come to the fore once again.
Yet it is difficult to envisage that happening at St James’ Park. Against opponents so obviously there for the taking, Moyes may even decide to hand the reigns of the team to Mata and Shinji Kagawa. A Newcastle side without Loic Remy has proved utterly toothless and it is likely to be a relaxing day for a Manchester United defense whose total concentration was required throughout the 90 minutes in midweek.
Prediction: Newcastle United 0-2 Manchester United
Newcastle: Remy remains sidelined with a calf problem, while Moussa Sissoko has been sidelined for two weeks with a hamstring injury suffered against Southampton. Tim Krul (knee), Mathieu Debuchy (groin), Sammy Ameobi (ankle), Gabriel Obertan (knee) and Ryan Taylor (knee) all remain unavailable.
Manchester United: Ryan Giggs is likely to miss out with a groin injury that forced him off at half-time against Bayern Munich. Alex Buttner has a better chance of recovering from a hamstring problem picked up in the same game. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have a chance of being involved having returned to training, while Rafael may come back into the side after missing the match with Bayern. Robin van Persie will still be missing with a knee injury.
D: Yanga-Mbiwa, Williamson, Coloccini, Santon
M: Tiote, Anita
Ben Arfa, De Jong, Gouffran
G: De Gea
D: Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra
M: Carrick, Fletcher
Young, Mata, Kagawa
Update (4/4): Wayne Rooney has been ruled out of the fixture with a badly bruised toe.