The mercurial Joey Barton has been in good form this season for Newcastle United. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
After suffering a disappointing defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final, Manchester United trek to the North-East to take on Newcastle United at St James' Park in a Barclays Premier League match. During the reverse fixture in the opening weekend of the season, United comfortably defeated Newcastle 3-0 at Old Trafford with goals by Dimitar Berbatov, Darren Fletcher, and Ryan Giggs. The goal by Giggs allowed him to continue his streak of being the only player ever to score in every season of the Premier League's history
Manchester United: Although the possibility of another treble is now over after the defeat by City, United are not short on ambition. The Red Devils still hope to win their 19th league title, a feat that would allow them surpass rival Liverpool FC, and they also seek to be crowned the kings of Europe for a fourth time. United currently are six points clear of their nearest title-contending rival Arsenal FC with six matches remaining in league play. A UEFA Champions League semi-final tie versus German side Schalke '04 also awaits next week.
Injuries have been a major concern for the club in recent months, but United appear to be getting healthy. A bigger concern now may be fatigue as the club is currently playing a match every three or four days. Owen Hargreaves and Anders Lindegaard continue to be unavailable due to long-term injuries. Paul Scholes is unavailable as well due to suspension after the red card he picked up versus City. Darren Fletcher has missed the past six weeks of action due to a virus, but the Scot has resumed training and is attempting to regain fitness after the virus caused him to lose weight.
Newcastle: The Magpies come into the match sitting 10th in the table, six points clear of the relegation zone. After starting the season so well after their return to the Premier League this season, Newcastle have really struggled in recent months. They have only earned three victories since the new year began. Injuries, suspensions, and the sale of Andy Carroll to Liverpool have wreaked havoc on the Magpies' season.
Captain Kevin Nolan will miss the match due to a suspension from yellow card accumulation. Striker Shola Ameobi has been suffering from a knee injury and his status is uncertain. Stephen Ireland appears to have recovered from a thigh injury and will likely be available for the match. Hatem Ben Arfa has retuned to training but continues to recover from a broken leg after a horrific tackle by Nigel De Jong put him out in October.
With manager Sir Alex Ferguson, it's never an easy task to predict lineups and formations. This becomes even more difficult when considering the role that squad rotation and managing fatigue has on his lineup choices. Starting on Saturday over a 9-day span, United will play Everton in a league tie, travel away to Germany to face Schalke in the Champions League, and travel to London for a crucial and potentially title-deciding clash with Arsenal. Edwin van der Sar can be expected in goal but if the Gaffer wants to rest the 40-year-old, Tomasz Kuszczak will deputize. Captain Nemanja Vidic will likely start at center-back and his partner may be either Chris Smalling or Rio Ferdinand. The latter has recently returned from injury and may be rested. Patrice Evra is always first-choice at left-back when healthy, but the Frenchman looked visibly fatigued versus City in the later stages of the match. Fabio may deputize for him. John O'Shea is the likely choice at right-back, but if Rafael or Wes Brown are fully fit, either of them could start as well. Michael Carrick and Giggs are my guesses to be the two-central midfielders, but Anderson and Darron Gibson are possibilities as well. As for the wide players, Nani, Antonio Valencia, and Giggs are the most likely possibilities. Wayne Rooney returns from suspension and he likely is to be paired with Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez.
Steve Harper is the Newcastle No 1 and the center-back tandem will likely be Fabricio Coloccini and Michael Williamson. Jose Enrique, who is the subject of transfer rumors to Liverpool in the summer, is the left-back and Danny Simpson is the first-choice right-back. Chiek Tiote is expected to return from injury for this game and he likely will be partnered in the center of the pitch by Danny Guthrie. Joey Barton is the wide player on the right and Jonas Gutierrez is the wide left player. If Ameobi is fit to play, expect to start alongside Peter Lovenkrands. If Ameobi isn't fit to start, anticipate seeing Nile Ranger get the start.
Be sure to check back with us as this projection will continually be updated as news comes in regarding injury and personnel issues. Here's the current projection:
A few tactical keys:
* United's right-winger vs Enrique: Enrique has had a standout season and he's generally considered to be one of the better left-backs in the Premier League now. The Spaniard loves to get forward and into the attack. If Valencia plays on the right flank for United, then the Ecuadorian winger needs to be concentrated on pinning-back Enrique, something he typically does very well. If Nani is playing as a wide right player, he needs to be threatening enough so that Enrique is cautious with his runs forward.
* Space on United's left-side and Newcastle's right-side: From his wide right position, Barton likes to tuck inside. His vision and range of passing is impressive. When Barton drifts inside, Simpson likes to get forward into that open space with overlapping runs. If Nani plays on the left, his tendency to play very high and cut into the middle also provides quite a bit of space on the touchline. The space will likely be there all along the touchline; whoever takes advantage of it better will likely be a key factor in the outcome of the match.
* Rooney's movment: Rooney's recent tendency has been to drop deep and and create from the space in between the opponent's defense and midield lines. He's absolutely been destroying opponents in this role in recent months. If Tiote does start for Newcastle, he may end up playing deep and tracking Rooney when he comes deep for the ball. Tiote has been a terrific player for Newcastle and if his side hope to pull off the upset, then Tiote, or another Newcastle midfielder, likely needs to stay deep and occupy the space that Rooney likes to roam into.
Odds: Newcastle 15/4, Draw 5/2, Manchester United 8/11
Prediction: Newcastle 0-2 Manchester United
SBN's Newcastle blog: Coming Home Newcastle