The sudden juggernaut who are Manchester United attempt to make it four wins in four under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday when they face Newcastle United at St James’ Park.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Solskjaer, best remembered as the striker who capped United’s historic treble with his dramatic stoppage-time winner versus Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, has breathed new life into what was a moribund United (10-5-5) since his arrival on loan from Norwegian side Molde.
The Red Devils have totaled 12 goals in his three matches in charge, with an emphasis on going forward with Paul Pogba in a more advanced role in midfield. The France international and World Cup winner has factored in seven of the goals scoring four and assisting on three after recording his second consecutive brace in Sunday’s 4-1 romp past Bournemouth.
One of the more notable differences under Solskjaer is Pogba finding his way into the penalty area, a sign of trust from the new manager and also a sign the defence in midfield is in capable hands with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.
Marcus Rashford contributed a goal and an assist, and in his first appearance for United under Solskjaer after returning from compassion leave, Romelu Lukaku capped the scoring on 72 minutes almost straightaway after his introduction for Rashford.
United are almost at full strength in attack, with Alexis Sanchez expected to be included for the first time since a reserve appearance against Crystal Palace on Nov. 24. The Chile international, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury in addition to reportedly falling out of favour with since-sacked Jose Mourinho, has just three goals in 22 league matches since joining United from Arsenal last January.
“Alexis has had some great training sessions over the last few days and wanted to be here (against Bournemouth) as well but we’ve had to manage him,” explained Solskjaer to the club’s official website. “He’s been out for a month. He will be involved (at Newcastle), yes. He wants to play all the time, he’s one of those characters. He made himself available but I think it was a few days too early for him. He’s not had enough fitness work but he is champing at the bit.
“I think Alexis is a player that would benefit from the interchanging, rotation and movements and, of course, more chances. If we create more chances and get the ball in the final third, he will be an asset for us.”
Solksjaer will be forced into one change from Sunday’s XI as Eric Bailly will begin serving his three-match ban for a reckless challenge on Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser. Phil Jones is expected to pair with Victor Lindelof in central defence, with Matteo Darmian on standby since Chris Smalling and Marcus Rojo are sidelined through injury.
There has only been light speculation over United’s doings in the upcoming transfer window, though the club has been linked to 19-year-old Ajax centre back Matthis de Ligt. Prior to his dismissal, Mourinho had been adamant about acquiring another central defender, but club chairman Ed Woodward rebuffed Mourinho’s want of Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld.
As Manchester United appear to have found themselves, Newcastle United (4-6-10) continue to scrap for any and all points in a bid to avoid the drop. The Magpies dropped two crucial points Saturday at Watford when they were pegged back for a 1-1 draw courtesy a late Hornets goal by Abdoulaye Doucoure eight minutes from time.
Salomon Rondon, who was rested Boxing Day when the Magpies took a 4-0 hiding from Arsenal, staked Newcastle to the lead just before the half-hour with his third goal in the last five matches he has played. The Venezuela international has scored or assisted on Newcastle’s last four goals spanning the club’s last seven matches and has accounted for five of their 15 goals in league play.
The impending transfer window will likely provide more friction between Benitez and embattled owner Mike Ashley, who is again reportedly close to selling the club. The Spaniard has spent nearly every window publicly beseeching Ashley to open the purse strings in post-match press conferences, only to have the amount fall short of what he desires or not seen at all.
With a contract that expires in May and no new offer to extend Benitez’s deal – much to the chagrin of club supporters who are firmly in the Spaniard’s camp – the gaffer gave the sound of a man whose loyalty is being tested despite sticking with them to win the Championship and earn promotion back to the Premier League in 2017.
“I think our fans are quite clever,” he told the Chronicle Live. “I decided to stay when I came here, and I thought we could save the team, but we couldn’t. I then decided to stay in the Championship, so they know about my past, about my history.
“They appreciate that, and then we won, which is football. Even if you have a good CV, you still have to win.”
Winning at home is something Newcastle have not done much of this term. The Magpies are just 2-1-7 at St James’ Park, totaling only seven goals while shipping 15. They also have six losses in as many matches to Big Six foes, with all but the defeat at Arsenal coming by one goal.
The loss to United at Old Trafford may have been the most painful one of the six as Newcastle roared to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes through Yoshinori Muto and Joselu, only to see Manchester United fight back in the final 20 minutes to win 3-2. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial scored in the 70th and 76th minutes, respectively, before Sanchez headed in his only goal of the season at the death.
Newcastle won last term’s corresponding fixture 1-0 courtesy of Matt Ritchie’s goal on 65 minutes but have won just six of 47 Premier League matches (6-14-27) between the sides.
Per Bet365, Manchester United’s renaissance has caught the attention of oddsmakers as they are 4/7 favourites to win their fourth match on the bounce. Newcastle United are 9/2 underdogs to deal Solskjaer his first loss since taking over, and there are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.
Even with Newcastle’s expected defensive set-up for this encounter, the odds of there being more than 2.5 goals are 4/6 compared to 6/5 odds on a total under that mark. With United still shaky at times in the back coupled with Newcastle having scored twice in the reverse fixture, there are 7/10 odds on both teams getting at least one goal compared to 21/20 odds on a clean sheet in either direction.
After scoring on his return from compassion leave, Lukaku is a 4/1 pick to score the first goal of this match, followed by Anthony Martial (9/2). Pogba, Rashford and Alexis Sanchez are all 5/1 picks to create a 0-1 scoreline, with Jesse Lingard is a 15/2 pick. Unsurprisingly, Rondon leads the line for the Magpies at 17/2, with Joselu (9/1) and Perez (10/1) rounding out the top three for the hosts.
No one on United is better than even money to score, though Lukaku (11/10) and Martial (6/5) are fairly close. The trio of Pogba, Rashford and Sanchez are all 11/8 options, with Lingard tabbed at 11/5. For Newcastle, Rondon is a 5/2 pick, followed by Joselu (11/4) and Perez (3/1).
Benitez has some interesting personnel and tactical decisions to make considering how Manchester United are nothing like the side Newcastle faced in October. For starters, will he go with a five-man back for the third straight match? Despite the heavy 4-0 scoreline at Anfield, the Magpies did not play all that badly and were eight minutes from a crucial three-point pickup at Watford last weekend.
Rondon missed the first match through injury, and his form makes him a virtual must-start given Newcastle’s lack of scoring options beyond him. The loss at Old Trafford was one of just three matches all season Benitez’s team has scored more than one goal, and they have yet to register three in any contest. If Rondon operates by his lonesome, how do Liverpool supply him? Will it be through the flanks with Kenedy and Perez, or will it be over the top, with Shelvey appearing to be finally over his thigh injury.
Newcastle tried — with much success — pumping balls up to keep the Red Devils’ back four pinned just above the box in the first encounter, and Manchester United contributed to Newcastle’s success with some abject defending. Bailly, who lasted just 19 minutes before being fish-hooked out by Mourinho, will not be at the centre of any controversy this time around as a spectator.
This will be the first real test of United’s offence given the lack of quality of both Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, and the lack of anything resembling a top-tier defence from injury-ravaged Bournemouth last time out. Though the expectation is for Martial to start, seeing Sanchez from the opening kickoff would not be a surprise. Both have the capacity to give Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin a miserable time on the left.
For all their new-found prowess in attack, United are still a work in progress on defence. The expectation is Newcastle will be content to try and hit on the counter — thus the less possession the Magpies have, the better off United’s back four are. If Diogo Dalot does get the rotational start over Ashley Young at right back, how he deals with both Kenedy and Ritchie — who is more of a wing player than a fullback — will be something to watch.
As all this goes on, the subplot of Benitez versus Ashley in the transfer window will heat up quickly if things go sideways in this contest. It borders on unseemly that the perception is Benitez seemingly begging for table scraps in terms of what Ashley is willing to spend, which of course is no guarantee that any funds are forthcoming.
Much of the core of this side is the one who won the Championship in 2016-17. Benitez completely overachieved with this squad into a top-half finish last term, something that said as much about the “Other 14” in the Premier League in terms of overall quality. That holds true again to a degree, though there is a more defined stratification that makes the bottom half of the table more compressed after the Big Six and the next four among Wolves, Watford, Leicester City and perhaps Everton when they’re in the mood.
Newcastle are walking a fine line right now, and while a one-goal loss would be both unsurprising and frustratingly acceptable to this suddenly rejuvenated Manchester United side in the grand scheme of Premier League survival, a defeat like the one at Anfield could potentially make January a miserable month for the Magpies.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Manchester United 2.