Manchester: Despite being guaranteed top spot at the Premier League’s halfway point, Manchester United’s leaky defence could thwart their quest to regain the trophy from Manchester City.
Going into the 19th match of the campaign on Wednesday against Newcastle, United have already conceded 25 times, just eight short of the total in 38 games last year when the title was lost on goal difference.
As they prepare for Newcastle’s visit, the United players have been recalling how they produced just one of three clean sheets so far, in a 3-0 victory at the northeast club in October.
“We went there with the right mindset and defended well, we had great shape and got two early goals,” United defender Jonny Evans said. “It was probably one of our best defensive performances of the season.”
United are four points ahead of City, but the second-place team’s defence has only been breached 15 times so far in heir title defence.
United’s firepower up front, though, is more lethal, hitting 44 goals in 18 matches compared with 34 by City. United have become reliant on Robin Van Persie, who has scored 12 goals in the league alone since joining from Arsenal in August.
“I reckon we got our Christmas present early — right at the start of the season when Robin van Persie arrived at Old Trafford,” manager Alex Ferguson said. But Ferguson has a quandary up front as both Van Persie and Wayne Rooney are one booking away from suspension.
Rooney, though, was ineffective in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Swansea, and Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck will both be hoping to regain a starting spot on Wednesday.
Newcastle haven’t won at Old Trafford since 1972 and are enduring a gloomy season after a surprise fifth-place finish in May.
Languishing five points above the relegation zone in 14th place, Newcastle’s victory over Queens Park Rangers on Saturday was only the team’s second in 12 games.
“They’ve found it a bit tougher this year but I know they’ve had some injuries, which have played a part,” Welbeck said. “You can still see potential throughout their team. They have some real attacking threats — everyone knows about players like Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse.”
Having already lost to Man City this month, Newcastle follow up the trip to United with matches against fourth-place Arsenal on Saturday and fifth-place Everton on Wednesday.
“When you looked at the programme at the start, you could see this was a tough run for us — and even tougher now with the results we’ve had,” Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said.
Newcastle are just a point and a place above Sunderland, and their northeast rival host United’s neighbour City on Wednesday.
City cut United’s six-point lead to four at the weekend thanks to Gareth Barry’s late winner against bottom-place Reading. “We are a very strong team, self-motivated and full of confidence at the moment,” City defender Matija Nastasic said. “What is important is that we keep the same attitude, if we want to win the Premier League.”
So too do Chelsea, who are at Norwich on Wednesday.
Resurgent under Rafael Benitez, Chelsea’s 8-0 victory over Aston Villa on Sunday put the side 11 points behind leader United with a game in hand. “We have to sustain this run and it will be easier for me to say we can compete,” Benitez said.
Fourth-place Arsenal were due to play West Ham on Wednesday but the game was postponed due to a strike by London Underground workers. They are the only sides not in action on Boxing Day. So Arsenal could be overtaken by Everton, Tottenham or West Bromwich Albion, who are only behind Arsene Wenger’s side on goal difference.
Everton host Wigan, Tottenham are at Aston Villa and West Brom play a Queens Park Rangers side that is just a point off the bottom of the standings.