Newcastle fearful of red menace

Glenn Moore sees a difficult fortnight ahead for Kevin Keegan
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The Independent Online
The country's footballing spotlight now moves to Manchester. How will their pretenders react? Having trailed Newcastle United all season, Manchester United will go top of the Premiership if they win at Queen's Park Rangers on 16 March.

Form suggests they will do just that and, while Newcastle can retake the lead at home to West Ham two days later, the pair are likely to trade places until April Fool's Day. That is when Newcastle, who will be second if both sides have won their games, visit Anfield.

Enter the third force. Liverpool, like Manchester United, are peaking when it matters. By 1 April they could well be level with Newcastle (they have a trio of home games and one away before then).

Newcastle were verbally defiant on Monday night, but the body language betrayed them. Kevin Keegan's natural confidence was muted, his chairman's customary ebullience dimmed.

"It is still ours to win," said Sir John Hall, when press and public surrounded him as Monday night turned to Tuesday morning. He then, tellingly, took a long-term view. "It is not the end of the world. The future is ours. We are here a year early and we will be dominating British football for the next 10 years." Judging by Old Trafford's growing structure, and the presence in Monday's 14 of six youth products, the future is red. So, too, is the present unless Keegan can lift his men.

While most recent champions have survived being beaten by their nearest challengers, Newcastle may be developing a complex about Manchester United. They are the only team Newcastle have not beaten since returning to the top division and, after Monday's first half, they must wonder if they ever will. The confidence clearly drained away after Eric Cantona's goal, just as it coursed into the visitors' veins.

While both his opponents are now embroiled in the FA Cup, Keegan has 12 days in which to restore belief. It might be a good time to take the squad away, to Spain or somewhere like it, to recuperate and recharge. While there, a few video showings of the first half, during which Newcastle's pace and movement bewildered Manchester, may help - but Les Ferdinand will have to leave the room first.

The striker never looked like scoring from a succession of chances - but in his defence only one came to his head, and then he was not coming on to the ball. It would have been a good night for Alan Shearer.

Without Keith Gillespie on the right Newcastle lack balance and crosses, while Faustino Asprilla, with his eye for a pass and his quicksilver feet, duplicates Peter Beardsley rather than than Ferdinand or Gillespie. For all his quality an FA suspension, for the head-butt and elbow on Keith Curle, may prove a disguised blessing for the leaders.

Then there is the defence. Who will be dropped when Darren Peacock returns? Perhaps Philippe Albert could move to left-back. As at Old Trafford John Beresford was missing, drawn into the centre when it mattered. Yet this is no time to experiment - as the uncertainty with three central defenders has illustrated.

Plenty, then, for Keegan to ponder as he awaits a return to the fray. Newcastle are a long way from being finished but, though David Batty was supposed to be the last piece of the jigsaw, they are not the finished article either.