There’s nothing quite like a Premier League Boxing Day clash – filled with all the intensity you’d expect from your standard English top flight fixture, yet further enriched by the festive atmosphere, the chilly weather and of course, the odd player that’s clearly helped himself to a few too many mince pies and mulled wines the night before.
Red Devils fans will have full confidence in their home advantage, having won seven of their last eight matches at Old Trafford. But contests of such festive feistiness are often decided by who dominates the individual battles, so with that in mind, here’s a list of FIVE that could determine the outcome on Boxing Day.
Spare a thought for Newcastle United’s 21 year-old third-choice goalie Jak Alnwick. He was the hero of the hour when coming on for the injured Rob Elliot in a shock 2-1 win over Premier League leaders Chelsea, but has since gone on to concede nine goals in just three games.
And things won’t be any easier against Manchester United; their world-class attacking cast are extremely clinical, with a shooting accuracy of 48% and scoring one goal every 2.7 efforts on target this season.
Newcastle’s defence isn’t the best – in fact, it’s the second worst in the Premier League’s top half in terms of goals conceded, after Liverpool’s – so Alnwick shouldn’t expect particular heroics from those in front of him.
Indeed, if the Magpies are to get anything from United’s visit, Alnwick will need to be in superfluous form.
With Wayne Rooney retaining his central midfield role from United’s last two Premier League outings, it looks set to be a battle of the forward-thinking powerhouses when the Red Devils skipper locks horns with Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko.
Both are industrious, progressive attackers who will look to make bursting runs from deep positions to instigate attacks.
In terms of output, the Frenchman can leave a lot to be desired, whilst Rooney’s quality in scoring and creating situations is well known.
Yet, Sissoko’s a potent weapon on the counter-attack when facing heavyweight opponents through his strength and pace – as proved against Chelsea and Manchester City this season, where he picked up a goal and an assist respectively.
Should Wazza Roo suffer from lapses of positional ill-discipline due to his unfamiliarity in the middle of the park, the Newcastle midfielder will be quick to take advantage.
Rooney’s push into deeper midfield may not be ideal for Manchester United, but it does present them the opportunity to get Juan Mata and the England skipper into the same starting XI and perhaps more importantly, in his most effective capacity at No.10.
Despite struggling for a regular first team role since his £37million move last January, the former two-time Chelsea Player of the Year boasts a respectable eleven goals and six assists in 29 Premier League appearances for the Red Devils, including a return of five goals in 14 outings this season.
Fortunately for Newcastle however, in Cheick Tiote they claim one of the Premier League’s top holding midfielders, that many of the bigger English clubs would love to get their hands on.
Mata can often find himself outmuscled in the central attacking hub so the Ivory Coast international’s physical presence could be enough to nullify the Spaniard’s creative threat.
That being said, only Crystal Palace’s Maourane Chamakh commits more fouls per match than Tiote in the Premier League right now, and Manchester United are more than capable of hurting the Magpies from set pieces – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata are all prolific from dead ball situations.
Make no mistake, Ashley Young has found a new lease of life as Manchester United’s emergency left wing-back this season, averaging an impressive 1.6 tackles, 2.3 interceptions, 1.5 dribbles and 1.3 accurate crosses per match.
If we were to flip that proverbial coin however, one could easily argue this is a fantastic opportunity that the rest of the Premier League has failed to exploit – the 29 year-old isn’t a natural defender by any stretch of the imagination and at some point, inevitably, that will let him down.
Thus, continuous bombardment down the right flank could be the Magpies’ route to success against United.
Daryl Janmaat’s endured a mixed start to his Newcastle career but few would dispute that the Netherlands international is far better going forward than towards his own goal, having already notched up three assists this term.
Whether Remy Cabella or Yoan Gouffran start on the right on Boxing Day, Janmaat needs to be in close support to double-up on Young as much as possible.
He’ll understand the ins and outs of Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system better than any Newcastle player too, having excelled in the same formation under the United gaffer’s leadership during Oranje’s World Cup campaign.
In a similar fashion to Ashley Young, United’s defensive situation is hardly ideal. Chris Smalling could return to the starting XI pending a late fitness test, but it looks set to be the same line up, of Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans that endured a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa.
Evans has really struggled in wide centre-half roles this season whilst Carrick, although tall and anticipatory, isn’t a defender at all.
Resultantly, Newcastle front-man Ayoze Perez might fancy his chances of capitalising upon the chaotic unfamiliarity of United’s three-man defense on Boxing Day.
The youthful Spaniard reportedly rejected offers from Real Madrid and Barcelona to move to Tyneside this summer and he’s already living up to the hype, with four goals in just eight Premier League starts.
He’s netted just once since early November but a huge talent capable of providing moments of individual magic, the 21 year-old is the kind of player who will relish facing the 13-time Premier League champions.