Losing at home to Blackburn was a disaster, but the crushing 3-nil defeat at Newcastle was far more embarrassing for Manchester United because the Champions were well beaten – and on this form could even struggle to finish in the top four.

United are just three points behind rivals City with 18 matches remaining. But the reality is the Reds must rediscover their form, and they must do so quickly or the  New Year blip will turn into a crisis. The stakes could not be higher when Manchester’s top two go head to head in the FA Cup third round at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

The Cup showdown is the perfect opportunity for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to answer the critics. But the pressure is on because injuries have taken their toll on a United side that previously won five straight League matches culminating with two crushing 5-0 triumphs before the unexpected back-to-back defeats in this latest nightmare five day spell.

The worry is Sir Alex Ferguson’s men do not have a strong enough squad to paper over the cracks, unless they dig deep and add re-inforcements in the transfer window which is now open.

In the meantime, it is up to United’s big names to earn their money. Wayne Rooney looked out of condition at Newcastle and not surprisingly was benched before the end. Nani is not at his best, and the same goes for most of United’s squad.

There is no doubt Rooney is one of the best players in the Premier League, and on his day Nani is as good as anyone. But reputations count for nothing when the whistle goes. Every success has to be earned and the players owe it to the fans to work harder to find the consistency expected of Manchester United.

Meantime, let’s give credit to Newcastle for their outstanding display of the season. Manager Alan Pardew summed up the night when he said: “We won because we controlled the game in terms of what we wanted to do. We would not let them play. Physically and aerially we had an advantage and capitalised on that. We broke up their play so many times today. We beat the champions 3-0 and probably deserved that scoreline. We have had a great season so far without turning over one of the top teams. Today we had our best team out there and it showed.”