Magpies look fit to fly clear

Guy Hodgson on the problems facing Manchester United as they prepare to face the Premiership leaders tonight

Christmas, according to Manchester United's manager Alex Ferguson, does not decide a season but it certainly shapes it. By that measure his own team have metamorphosised into something giving cause for concern.

The state United find themselves in at Old Trafford tonight as they prepare to meet the Premiership leaders, Newcastle United, in one of the formative matches of the season, is such that an infusion of extra personnel might be required. They look, in short, awful.

Losing to Liverpool could be written off as a bad day at the office (particularly for Ferguson whose decision to leave his midfield without a ball winner was misguided) but that match was a part of a trend confirmed by their defeat at Leeds on Christmas Eve. Just three points have been accrued from the last five matches and Newcastle have a massive advantage now of 10.

That would be bad enough going in against leaders who are out of a trough and playing with zest and imagination again but United will be without their foundation, their centre-backs Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, both of whom will be missing for the forseeable future.

Ferguson has several options including moving Roy Keane back or employing the on-loan French international from Bordeaux, William Prunier, but none appears a convincing argument to put up against the rampant scoring of Les Ferdinand or the trickery of Peter Beardsley and David Ginola.

"It has become a big game for us," Ferguson said with measured understatement. "There's nothing wrong with our confidence, things are just not going our way at the moment and we've been unlucky with injuries. It's not the youngsters who are picking up the knocks but the experienced ones."

Injuries to young players can be a blessing because it gives them a rest and helps them through dips in form but even United's prodigies cannot compensate for such losses as Pallister, Ryan Giggs and, until Elland Road, Keane. The team looks short in invention and pygmy-like in defence.

Indeed just about the only things to soothe Ferguson's mood in the season of goodwill has been the re-appearance of Keane and a glimmer of light in the dark self-questioning that Andy Cole has inflicted upon himself.

The conviction in Keane's return from a hernia operation against Leeds was staggering given that he had not played since 4 November and it required a virtuoso performance from Tomas Brolin to prevent him being the outstanding player on the pitch. "The man's desire to win is incredible," Ferguson said. "There's not a player who can touch him."

There was not a player whose touch had deserted him so completely as Cole but his goal against Leeds provoked a transformation. It was as if United had brought on a substitute as their striker, a lonely and out- of touch figure hitherto, suddenly started raining shots on goal. But for Mark Beeney's reflexes he could easily have had a hat-trick.

Newcastle, of course, know more about Cole's menace than anyone - particularly Mancunian supporters - but it is unlikely to worry them given their form against Nottingham Forest on Saturday.

Ginola was brilliant, both playing through the middle and on the left flank, while Robert Lee is unlikely to go into his shell like he did at Old Trafford last season. Kevin Keegan is in the happy position of knowing that even defeat will leave his side with a substantial lead, although he may well protect his advantage by playing a back five with the former United player, Keith Gillespie, making way for an extra defender.

"It's only three points," the Newcastle manager said, "but if we win it will put a massive gap between ourselves and the team I regard as our closest rivals. They have to go for a win and maybe we can profit from that."

Given United's defensive problems, he is probably right. Newcastle should get a draw, at least.

FERDINAND v COLE: A story of two strikers

Newcastle's visit to Old Trafford tonight will see the spotlight fall on two of the Premiership's leading strikers, Les Ferdinand (left) and Andy Cole (right). Cole left Newcastle for Manchester United a year ago and it was not until the summer that Kevin Keegan found his long-term replacement, signing Ferdinand from Queen's Park Rangers. Although Ferdinand has enjoyed the more productive season, statistics show that Cole was marginally more prolific in his early days at Newcastle and has a better goals-per-game ratio.

Les Ferdinand

Lge FA LC Eur Oth Tot

1987/88 0 (1) 0 0 (1) 0 0 (1) 0 (QPR, Brentford loan)

1987/88 0 (3) 0 0 0 0 0 (3) (Brentford loan)

1988/89 0 0 0 0 0 0 (QPR)

1989/90 2 (9) 0 0 0 0 2 (9) (QPR)

1990/91 8 (18) 0(1) 2(2) 0 0 10 (21) (QPR)

1991/92 10 (23) 0 0(2) 0 0 10 (25) (QPR)

1992/93 20 (37) 2(2) 2(3) 0 0 24 (42) (QPR)

1993/94 16 (36) 0(1) 2(3) 0 0 18 (40) (QPR)

1994/95 24 (37) 1(3) 1(2) 0 0 26 (42) (QPR)

1995/96 8 (18) 0 3(4) 0 0 21 (22) (QPR)

Total 98 (182) 3 (7) 10 (17) 0 0 111 (206)

Andy Cole

Lge FA LC Eur Oth Tot

1990/91 0 (1) 0 0 0 0 0 (1) (Arsenal)

1991/92 3 (13) 0 0 0 1(2) 4 (15) (Fulham, loan)

1991/92 8 (12) 0 0 0 0 8 (12) (Bristol C, loan)

1992/93 12 (29) 0(1) 4(3) 0 1(6) 17 (39) (Bristol City)

1992/93 12 (12) 0 0 0 0 12 (12) (Newcastle)

1993/94 34 (40) 1(3) 6(2) 0 0 41 (45) (Newcastle)

1994/93 9 (18) 0(1) 2(5) 4(3) 0 15 (27) (Newcastle)

1994/95 12 (17) 0 0 0 0 12 (17) (Man Utd)

1995/96 3 (15) 0 0(1) 0(1) 0 3 (17) (Man Utd)

Total 93 (571) 1 (5) 12 (11) 4 (4) 2 (8) 112 (185)

INTERNATIONAL RECORDS

Ferdinand: 3 goals in 8 games Cole: 0 goals in 1 game

TOTALS (including international record)

Ferdinand: 114 goals in 214 games Cole: 112 in 186 games

GOALS PER GAME

Ferdinand: 1.87 Cole: 1.66

LAST SEASON'S RECORD

Ferdinand: 26 goals in 42 games

Cole: 27 goals (15 for Newcastle) in 34 games

NEWCASTLE COMPARISON

Ferdinand has played 22 matches for Newcastle, scoring 21 goals.

Cole scored 22 goals in his first 22 matches at St James' Park

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