Fergie's thin red line: United go into City FA Cup tie looking a shadow of past teams
Gary Neville made a return to Twitter on Thursday and he was soon debating the merits of the Manchester United team of 1999 compared to that of 2008.
He thought the more recent to be the better, even if he agreed that a midfield comprising David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs was the finest we have seen in the Barclays Premier League. As @GNev2 said: ‘It had everything.’
The same cannot be said of the United midfield so comprehensively beaten at Newcastle on Wednesday night and Sir Alex Ferguson would probably be reluctant to compare other parts of the team to their predecessors. Even if some of them, namely Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Giggs and Michael Carrick, were members of one or both great United sides.
Nowhere to hide: Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney feel the pain of defeat
These are tough times for Ferguson, and not just because he has the kind of injury problems that are forcing him to play Antonio Valencia at right back.
Individually, there are some real issues United’s manager needs to address. Issues that are highlighted in a way that must feel rather unfamiliar, even to a man of Ferguson’s considerable experience.
It is not often he will watch a match knowing, man for man, that the opposition have better players. It obviously happened at Wembley last May, when Barcelona gave his side ‘a hiding’ like none he could recall, and there must have been spells during that 6-1 defeat by Manchester City at Old Trafford when he would have wanted one or two individuals to swap shirts before the final whistle.
What would he give for Yaya Toure right now The only consolation on Thursday was news from Roberto Mancini that Toure will not be involved in Sunday’s FA Cup third-round tie because he must report for Africa Cup of Nations duty.
Nemesis: Yaya Toure slots home the only goal of the game in last season's FA Cup semi-final – but the Ivorian will miss Sunday's third round tie
But a more damning indictment of the United side that will probably appear at the Etihad Stadium this weekend came in the North East on Wednesday night.
Not even when Kevin Keegan was pushing United so close to the title would Ferguson have wanted to return home with so many Newcastle players smuggled aboard the United team bus. But there were probably five members of the Newcastle team who could have secured a place in United’s this week.
Not least that terrific midfield partnership of Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, who so comfortably dominated a 38-year-old Giggs and Carrick with their power, skill and athleticism. Tiote was outstanding; composed on the ball but a destructive force, too.
Fabricio Coloccini was the stand-out centre half, with Ferdinand still some way short of his best and Phil Jones enduring the kind of night he will need to learn from. At times this season he has looked terrific. But against Demba Ba and Shola Ameobi he had something of a horror show, playing a significant role in all three Newcastle goals and giving a performance that lacked maturity, commitment and concentration.
Easing off: The exceptional Demba Ba forces Phil Jones onto the back foot
Behind Coloccini stood Tim Krul, and the Newcastle goalkeeper would certainly get a game ahead of Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea. Recruiting goalkeepers has proved a problem for Ferguson in the past, not least in the wake of Peter Schmeichel’s departure. But replacing Edwin van der Sar is turning into a torturous exercise when De Gea looks like one for the future, despite an 18million price tag.
Goalkeeper is a hugely important position and instability in that area would be a major issue for any side. While Lindegaard might yet emerge as the better option of the two, his career history would suggest he is no Schmeichel or Van der Sar. Not even another Fabien Barthez.
Based purely on Wednesday’s evidence, both Ba and Ameobi would earn selection ahead of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. But if we remember the qualities Rooney possesses and ignore the sulky attitude that seemed to be a hangover from his exclusion for the Blackburn game, he would still get the nod. Rooney and Ba would be some partnership. Right now, Ba is unplayable, a superb striker.
Up in arms: Edwin van der Sar's successor is yet to be established
It is a credit to Alan Pardew and his staff that Newcastle have so many fine players and not a cause, as Ferguson said on Thursday, for United to panic. Despite back-to-back defeats in the Premier League, they are just three points adrift of City and they have not been alone in dropping points over the festive period. It has been a difficult spell for all their main rivals, with the top six sides taking just 26 of the 54 available points between them.
As Steve McClaren said upon rejoining FC Twente as their coach, United will be better for the return of players currently sidelined through injury. Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley should be back in action soon and Ferguson might want to revisit Rafael da Silva as an option at right back. He could also add some strength and quality to the squad in this transfer window, with an audacious move for Frank Lampard something he appears to be considering.
History tells us it is always foolish to write off United because under Ferguson they have long displayed a resilience that is second to none.
But without a top-class goalkeeper and with Nemanja Vidic absent for what remains of the season, keeping pace with City represents one of Ferguson’s greatest challenges. Especially when the team that appeared at Newcastle this week looked so short of what will be required.