United Are Getting Ever Closer
Another game after which we can lament misplaced passes and lapses of concentration but another occasion when eventually United's quality proved enough for a triumph.
Chelsea and Liverpool did their jobs yesterday night and had United dropped points at St. James' Park they might have been encouraged to expect a Barcelonesque wobble. Considering that United's next league game is against Liverpool we couldn't really afford doubts to creep into the minds of the players.
Therefore it's fair to say that United made the worst possible start at Newcastle United tonight. Sir Alex fielded the team that's almost certain to start against Inter in a week's time (Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park, Fletcher, Carrick, Ronaldo; Berbatov, Rooney) but Newcastle were the better team in the early exchanges and soon grabbed the lead.
It's a shame, really, that Van der Sar's bid for more records had to end in such calamitous fashion: Gutierrez's poor cross deceived him, he failed to hold it and the stalking Lovenkrands put the ball into the empty net.
The Champions were shellshocked but quickly took the initiative and tried to take the game to Newcastle. Soon we were superior in midfield but we could not realise it in chances as final passes were invariably poor and our crossing let us down. Meanwhile, Newcastle were looking to do damage on the break at every opportunity. Fortunately, we quickly pegged them back.
And it was a wonderful attack, a one-two between Park and O'Shea, the latter playing in Rooney who turned delightfully to leave Coloccini stranded and lashed a powerful shot past Harper into the net. Brilliant and Rooney's goalscoring run continues.
The expectation among the away fans was that United would go on and swamp the opponents now the lead had been taken but it wasn't to be. The champions kept up their patient approach play and Newcastle were still full of energy, harassing our players and breaking quickly. But the visitors got closest to grab a goal as Vidic headed just over the bar from close range in the dying minutes of the half.
Vidic and Rio both found it hard to deal with the threat of Obafemi Martins and Gutierrez impressed as well but Newcastle were dealt a severe blow early into the second half as we went into the lead.
No imminent danger was noticeable when the ball got to Steve Taylor on the edge of the Newcastle box but the defender, somewhat unwisely, tried to send it back to his keeper using his chest. Park stole the ball from him and squared it to Berbatov for a simple tap-in.
Park worked hard all game and Berbatov always dropped deep to try and release Rooney and Ronaldo, the former excellent again. But it would be the untruthful to say that United were anywhere near their fluent best: Newcastle's energies were dwindling and we were in cruise control for much of the game after the second goal but could not land that decisive blow.
Taking our chances has been a problem all season and it almost came back to haunt us as Newcastle summoned all their remaining energy to give it a spirited go in the last few minutes. Carrick had to perform a last-ditch tackle on Martins whose ferocious shot, minutes later, was saved by Van der Sar. But United held on firmly to claim three points which, on the balance of play, we just about deserved.
The reigning champions are now seven points clear at the top and have a game in hand - virtually, we need to drop points in at least 4 games (and lose at least three of them, four draws won't be enough) for Liverpool and Chelsea to have any chance whatsoever. It's almost over: we're in touching distance of the trophy now.