Premier League – United battle for points at Newcastle
Peter Lovenkrands stunned the champions – and no doubt sparked excitement in certain parts of London and Merseyside – with a ninth-minute opener following an horrendous goalkeeping error by Edwin van der Sar.
But Wayne Rooney put the visitors back on level terms on 20 minutes – his ninth in nine games against the Magpies – before Dimitar Berbatov made United’s increased pressure count with what proved to be the winner on 56 minutes.
It was far from United’s most convincing performance of the season – for that Newcastle can take some credit – but nevertheless the result saw Alex Ferguson’s side pull away again from their nearest rivals Chelsea and Liverpool, who had given their own title hopes a boost with victories 24 hours earlier.
United’s big guns were recalled for the trip to Tyneside, with Van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Park Ji-Sung, Berbatov and Rooney all returning after having missed the weekend’s Carling Cup triumph.
But it was the men in black and white who first caught the eye as the assembled Toon Army were given a reminder of what it was like to follow Newcastle during the Nineties – the first half was full of cavalier attacking play from the hosts who had their illustrious guests rattled on a number of occasions.
From the first whistle, they got at Ferguson’s side, Obafemi Martins in particular looking in the mood. The Nigerian signalled his intent in just the second minute with a run and shot that flew wide of the upright and again on 13 minutes with a low drive into the side netting.
In between, Lovenkrands broke the deadlock and by doing so became the first player to beat Van der Sar in 1,311 minutes of league football.
That record was an incredible testament to the Dutchman’s form – and that of his defence – this season but the keeper was entirely to blame for failing to preserve it longer.
In an entirely uncharacteristic aberration, Van der Sar slipped a Jonas Gutierrez cross right into the path of Lovenkrands, who had the simple task of slotting home from close range. He will not score an easier goal all season.
Newcastle continued to press forward but in truth, the reigning champions looked just as likely to score and it came as no surprise when Rooney levelled 11 minutes later following a delightful piece of individual skill.
Soon after United had a big penalty shout turned down by referee Steve Bennett after Berbatov’s cross clearly struck Sebastien Bassong’s arm. ‘Ball to hand’ was the official’s verdict.
The remainder of the first half was played out at an incredible pace and with an intensity that rarely dropped. Chances fell at both ends, most notably to Martins following a goalmouth scramble sparked by a poor Van der Sar punch, and then to Nemanja Vidic, who somehow conspired to direct a close-range header high and wide from Carrick’s corner.
Almost inevitably, the pace slowed after the break as United began to assert their authority and take control of the game.
And the champions’ increased pressure told before too long with Berbatov converting Park’s cross after Steven Taylor had made a hash of an attempted chest back to his keeper.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of Newcastle and for the next half-hour United were irrepressible, Rooney firing over before he and Cristiano Ronaldo teed up Berbatov to force Harper into action from the edge of the box.
Rooney could have grabbed a second on 79 minutes when, with Harper off his line, he opted to try and find the top corner rather than square to a team-mate in a better position. It proved to be the wrong decision and his effort drifted over the bar.
For all United’s dominance of possession, Newcastle still posed a threat on the break and Martins, who gave Vidic and Rio Ferdinand problems throughout, was only denied a late equaliser by a sharp Van der Sar stop.
That proved to be the last chance of the game, leaving Ferguson’s side to edge closer to number three of five possible trophies this season.
As for stand-in Newcastle boss Chris Hughton, he will have to report back to Joe Kinnear on a performance that was full of spirit but one which ultimately left his team mired deep in relegation trouble, just a point above the drop zone.