Manchester United-Newcastle United Preview
Even in victory, the scrutiny grows ever more intense and the criticisms louder still.
After a lethargic FA Cup victory, Manchester United take to St James' Park on Tuesday hoping to exploit a reeling and relegation-threatened Newcastle United side, though it'll have to happen without a key midfielder.
It took a penalty from Wayne Rooney in the third minute of second-half stoppage time to save United's blushes with a turgid 1-0 victory over third-tier Sheffield United at Old Trafford on Saturday. Manchester United (9-6-5) lacked initiative, failing to register their first shot on goal until nearly the 70th minute, and Rooney's conversion after Memphis was tripped in the penalty area did little to stem the tide of complaints over the side's lacklustre play and innocuous attack.
Midfielder-turned-analyst Paul Scholes offered a scathing review of his former side, telling BT Sport that both United and manager Louis van Gaal "look bored" and that "every time you come to Old Trafford you see negative football."
There's plenty of truth to the second statement - Manchester United have scored only 12 goals in 10 league matches at Old Trafford and 22 in 17 across all competitions there. That lack of punch is more glaring since October, having produced a mere seven goals in the last 10 home contests.
Van Gaal, though, has given up on gaining style points and is content to simply win, noting to MUTV that "we won the game, which is the important thing, and I said to the boys before the match the only thing that counts is we are in the fourth round and we did it."
The Dutchman also downplayed the idea of United signing players during the January transfer window, though rumours have them interested in Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski and Lazio's Felipe Anderson. The Italian side already rejected an offer for Anderson during the summer window in August.
Though the offence continues to sputter, the defence has been solid, conceding just one goal while going unbeaten in the last three matches (2-1-0) after losing four straight and enduring a winless spell of seven (0-3-4). Manchester United, however, have gone winless in three outside Old Trafford in league play, losing the last two while conceding four goals.
Newcastle United are no strangers to scrutiny and fan unrest - owner Mike Ashley has been an easy target for the Toon Army's scorn and occasional boycotts since he bought the Tyneside team in 2007. The Magpies (4-5-11) have already been relegated once during his stewardship and finished in the top half of the Premier League table just twice - fifth in 2012 and 10th in 2014 - and once more find themselves in a fight for survival.
Their frustrations extended out of league play with a 1-0 defeat Saturday at Watford in the FA Cup that was the Magpies' fourth on the trot in all competitions by that score and stretched their scoreless drought to 412 minutes dating to Fabricio Coloccini's goal in a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa on Dec. 19.
A ghastly back-pass giveaway by Georginio Wijnaldum allowed Troy Deeney to swoop in for the match's lone goal in the 44th minute as Newcastle were bounced in the third round for the fourth straight year, further angering the fan base who traveled to Vicarage Road.
What made the defeat all the more discouraging is that manager Steve McClaren featured almost all of his first-choice lineup, and Newcastle - in 18th place and two points from safety - now face a quick turnaround against a Manchester United side that may be struggling, but are still Manchester United and vying for a top-four spot.
The teams played to a scoreless draw in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in August, with Newcastle failing to register a shot on target and since-injured 'keeper Tim Krul finishing with eight saves.
Manchester United have taken points in 24 of the last 27 matches (18-6-3) between the teams and won their last three at St James' Park by a combined 8-0 scoreline.
The Red Devils have ruled out Bastian Schweinsteiger, who suffered a knee injury near the end of Saturday's match but was able to finish the game.