MANCHESTER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic is nearing a return to fitness as Manchester United seek to strengthen their grip on second place in the Premier League when they visit Newcastle on Sunday.
The former Paris Saint-Germain striker has struggled to get back to his best since suffering cruciate knee ligament damage during a Europa League victory over Anderlecht last April.
He made his comeback in the reverse fixture against Newcastle at Old Trafford in November, a match that Jose Mourinho's side won 4-1, but has not played since late December due to concerns over his knee. "Zlatan started training with the team two days ago," Mourinho said on Friday. "So he has been two days with the group and is improving."
Mourinho would be extremely cautious about throwing him straight back into action on Sunday, although his squad is otherwise in reasonably good health.
Defenders Eric Bailly and Daley Blind are both expected to return from ankle injuries before the end of February, although midfielder Marouane Fellaini will not make his comeback until March as he recovers from knee surgery.
Last month's defeat to Tottenham is the only blemish on United's 2018 to date, with no goals conceded in their other six league and cup games so far this year, all of which have been won.
A 2-0 victory over Huddersfield last week, in which new signing Alexis Sanchez was outstanding, helped United make minor inroads into Manchester City's colossal lead, although the gap was still 13 points going into this weekend's fixtures.
Making up that ground in 12 matches is a near-impossible task but full-back Antonio Valencia has made it clear that United must keep up the fight, even if only to delay the inevitable.
Valencia referred to the remarkable title race of 2012, when United led by eight points with six games left but ended up losing the title to Manchester City on the final day. "We need to keep going," he said. "A few years ago, we lost a title when we were eight points ahead and there were only a few games left. Now, we have a lot more games to play and we need to keep fighting."
United's best hope of a trophy this season is probably the FA Cup, in which United will visit Huddersfield for a fifth-round tie later this month, while they play Sevilla in the last-16 of the Champions League.
Islam Slimani is set to make his Newcastle debut on loan from Leicester after the Algeria forward recovered from a thigh problem.
Rafa Benitez's side are in danger of an immediate return to the Championship following an eight-game run in the league since their last home win at the end of October.
Failure to beat a Manchester United side who have lost on just one of their past 13 visits to St James's Park would see the hosts post their worst home run for almost 19 years.
Slimani is confident his new side can turn the tide by extending Mourinho's six-game winless run in the league on Tyneside. "I'm ready if the manager needs me," said the Magpies' new arrival. "I've settled in well and am keen to help the team climb the table."