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The feelgood factor is well and truly back at Old Trafford. Manchester United have not achieved anything tangible yet, but the club’s fans are full of optimism as we prepare to enter the final few months of the 2022/23 season.
Few saw that coming at the start of the campaign when back-to-back defeats by Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford ushered in yet another crisis in the red half of Manchester. Since then, however, no team in the Premier League has accumulated as many points as United.
That has fuelled talk of a potential title tilt. The Red Devils will almost certainly lose ground on the two teams above them, Arsenal and Manchester City, this weekend. But as things stand they are just five points adrift of the summit of the standings.
United are one of the biggest clubs in world soccer, yet they have gone almost six years without lifting a trophy. Their last piece of silverware came back in 2017, when Jose Mourinho led his team to victory in the Europa League. Since then, United have continually fallen short in a variety of competitions.
The EFL Cup is by no means the biggest prize in the game, but a win on Sunday would serve as another mark of progress for a club which has punched well below its weight over the last decade.
It may have been a long six years for Manchester United supporters, but their trophy drought pales in comparison to that of Newcastle. You have to go all the way back to 1969 for the last time the Magpies claimed silverware by triumphing in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
Taking only domestic tournaments into account, it is now 68 years since the Magpies last lifted a trophy. They have come close since then, finishing as runners-up in the Premier League, the FA Cup and the EFL Cup, but Newcastle have not been able to get over the line.
Hope has been restored to St James’ Park over the last year or so. The takeover of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was controversial, and there is a strong argument that it should not have been allowed to happen.
But Newcastle have made huge progress since Mike Ashley, the unpopular former owner, was bought out. In fact, they are ahead of schedule: the Magpies are mounting a challenge for the top four, which no one really anticipated at the beginning of the season.
More than anything, though, the fans want to see their team win a trophy. Beating Manchester United on Sunday would make this season a huge success for Newcastle, regardless of what happens between now and the conclusion of the campaign.
These two teams drew 0-0 at Old Trafford in October. It was a largely uneventful game, but Newcastle showed considerable defensive resolve to keep a clean sheet. It was clear that day that Manchester United still had a long way to go under Ten Hag.
They are by no means the finished product yet, but the Red Devils have made huge progress in the subsequent four and a half months. Back then, any talk of a title triumph was fanciful. Now it is a genuine possibility.
United lined up with Cristiano Ronaldo up front in that meeting in October, with Rashford on the bench. Casemiro was still finding his feet in English soccer and Bruno Fernandes was struggling for form. United are in a much better place at the end of February than they were in the middle of October.
There are doubts over Rashford’s fitness for the final, but it would be a surprise if a minor knock kept him out of such a big match. The England international is likely to be included in the starting XI even if he is not 100 percent fit.
Nick Pope is suspended for Newcastle after a red card against Liverpool last time out. That is a major blow. He has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season, and his probable replacement Loris Karius has never played for the Magpies before.
Manchester United are also in better form than their upcoming opponents, and we reckon they will get the job done on Sunday. Back Ten Hag’s team to be celebrating come the final whistle at Wembley.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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