That's Why We Are Champions
The visit of Newcastle United seldom fail to provide happy memories for Reds fans. The 5-0 drubbing at St. James' Park ceased to haunt us as we paid them back more than enough times. The 6-2 win at Newcastle in April 2003 and the 5-3 home win earlier during the same season, Rooney's rocket in 2005, the 4-1 win in the FA Cup semi-final in the same year, not to mention the 1999 Cup final.
Yesterday's game will be stored on an honoured shelf of our footballing memory. With Newcastle mutually terminating Big Sam's contract earlier this week, the omens did not look good for the Barcodes. Yet they were given a glimmer of hope by the news that Hargreaves and Saha picked up minor injuries and will miss the game.
Alan Smith received warm applause as he led Newcastle out onto the pitch - but that will probably be the single best thing that he will remember of the evening. With the news of Arsenal's 1-1 draw spreading delight, the Old Trafford crowd could not be faulted for noise this time. And the team responded: within two minutes, Michael Carrick picked out Wayne Rooney who controlled the ball with a fine touch, then fired just over the bar with Given flailing hopelessly.
It set the tone for the rest of the first half. Giggs and Carrick were instrumental, with the latter particularly impressive. We carved open Newcastle's fragile defense at will but the finishing was frustrating and its effect was clearly visible on Fergie who watched the entire 45 minutes in an apparently agitated mood. Rooney was the main culprit: the England striker was impressively inventive and looked sharp on the field yet he kept on making bad decisions in front of goal.
It took a while for Cristiano Ronaldo to work himself into the game yet his passing was even better than usual and before long the threatening runs also appeared and the signs were ominous for Newcastle. However, the first half will be remembered for Rob Styles' horrible ineptitude. The ref blocked a United attack through then proceeded to ignore two stonewall penalty claims: first, Ronaldo was upended by Taylor yet Styles waved play on, seconds later Giggs was barged down by Alan Smith but once again we were denied.
It has to be said that Styles was badly let down by his assistant, too: the man on the touchline raised his flag to deny Michael Owen a perfectly good goal after the England striker picked up James Milner's great pass. It was a momentary relief for United but it would have hugely unjust if Newcastle had taken the lead as they created nothing and got away with two clear fouls in the box.
The second 45 minutes were wonderful, magnificent, all about brilliant and incisive passing and classy finishing. The fashion of the first goal was cruel on Newcastle as though Smith clipped Ronaldo but there was no intent of fouling involved there. Ronaldo, unperturbed by this, stepped up and drove his shot under the wall who jumped as if controlled by our Portuguese winger. Shay Given was clearly surprised by the shot and he could only help it into the net.
It liberated United and they were flowing over Newcastle. And the second half proved that when Rooney and Ronaldo are at their creative best, United are unplayable. Yesterday Ronaldo was the star of the show, he put on such a majestic performance that is extraordinary even by his own very high standards.
The second goal, though, wasn't down to the brilliance of our two young genius. It was a horrible, tipically Newcastleesque (is that a word?) error: Jose Enrique put Given into trouble with a risky back-pass and the Irish keeper's hasty clearance rebounded from Cacapa. Giggs collected it and pulled the ball back for Tevez who sweeped it home from 10 yards. Too easy.
Newcastle were rocked and as United started to enjoy their brand of one-touch, easy-on-the-eye passing football, you had to suspect this could turn nasty. Michael Carrick pulled the strings expertly in midfield, producing his best display of the season while Cristiano Ronaldo terrorised the visitors' defensive unit relentlessly. Quite simply, the Butt-Smith pair was no match for Anderson and Carrick and more and more they were simply overrun.
And they were forced to make mistakes (and made countless ones even when not being forced). One of these led to the third goal, twenty minutes from time: a bad pass towards Smith was well intercepted by Carrick who passed it up for Rooney. He knocked back to Tevez whose first-time ball released Ronaldo in the box. The ball was powerful and pacy but the Portuguese made it look like easy to control it and coolly slotted it home past Given.
Fergie immediately hauled off Ryan Giggs and Anderson who was a bit more subdued than usual. Nani and Fletcher replaced them and the former almost immediately started wreaking havoc on the left, his showing a long way from the frustratingly ineffective display against Birmingham. But it was Rooney who could have increased the lead as he embarassed Cacapa and fired a low shot from the edge of the box that was somehow kept out by Given's right leg...
United, at this stage, started to press forward as it was 0-0 and it could be seen that Newcastle were cracking under the pressure. After the corner following Rooney's chance, the England striker was in action again as he skipped past Butt, bided his time then sent a wonderful long ball into Ferdinand's path. The defender, using all the experience of his youth days when he used to be a striker, finished expertly, firing past Given who was given (erm...) no chance.
And there was no stopping the Red machine now. Our deadly attacking football ripped the visitors apart time and time again there was an air of inevitability when Taylor's headed clearance found Ronaldo on the edge of the box. The Portuguese winger sent Cacapa flying towards the North Stand with a simple movement of his feet then, aided by a slight deflection, he completed his first ever hat-trick for Manchester United.
In the meantime, young Danny Simpson who replaced Patrice Evra could have scored twice... I was sad he was denied. Yet Newcastle could not escape a sixth goal as they completely fell apart: O'Shea crossed into the box from the left, Nani flicked it on towards Tevez whose lunge drove the ball onto the underside of the bar and bounced down onto the line. It was a classic 1966 moment (or, to cite a more recent one, a Luis Garcia moment) yet it hardly mattered: Smith received a second yellow for dissent, a completely unnecessary incident...
United are back on top, played magnificent football and ripped Newcastle apart. For the Barcodes, the only way is up now, really...
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