Manchester United scored twice in the last 20 minutes do beat Newcastle 4-3 in a controversial Boxing Day thriller at Old Trafford, to move seven points clear at the top of the table after Manchester City suffered a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland.
This year more than ever, United should come with a health warning, for the burden they impose onto their fans is borderline with being unbearable. If today’s game is anything to go by, United might lack the guile and craft of yesteryears but definitely possess enough grit and determination to force their way back into a game.
Admirable as those two qualities might be, United rode their luck enormously today, with a largely sloppy performance that confirmed an alarming shortage of options in midfield, enhanced by the decline of two of the greatest figures in the history of British football.
United had thrown away precious points over the festive period 12 months ago, when Ferguson had dangerously tinkered with his side, but the lesson was seemingly not learnt by Sir Alex who chose a midfield including Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – an improvement from the Rafael-Park combination that had been exposed by Blackburn a year ago, but hardly United’s first choice combination.
Rather than papering over the cracks, Fergie’s rotation policy enhances United’s lack of depth in the engine room and despite his comments over Giggs and Scholes’ future, the Scot must know that this was (must be?) their last ever Boxing Day as footballers.
Antonio Valencia completed the midfield, with Van Persie and Hernandez up-front and Smalling and Ferdinand replacing Jones and Vidic at the back, while Young, Rooney and Welbeck sat out due to injuries and illness and a United bench short of options.
Having not won at Old Trafford for 42 years, Newcastle made the best possible start to the game when, inside four minutes, James Perch tapped home from close range after David De Gea decided to deliver a late Christmas present to the Toon midfielder, as he failed to deal properly with a decent effort from Demba Ba, parrying it straight into Perch’s path.
United, without ideas and rhythm in midfield, hit back with 25 minutes gone as Jonny Evans converted from close range after Javier Hernandez had forced a brilliant save from Tim Krul, following a Robin Van Persie’s free-kick. The joy was short-lived though, for Evans from hero quickly became villain as he deflected Simpson’s shot in his own net three minutes later.
The goal was initially ruled out for offside, as the linesman had correctly judged Papiss Cisse to be behind the last defender, but Mike Dean reversed the decision after consulting his assistant. The decision calmed an incensed Alan Pardew, but Sir Alex was apoplectic with the linesman.
The incident would have had pundits across the country ecstatic at the thought of the number of pages they would fill with a debate but, while Evans definitely got the last touch, Cisse was clearly offside, therefore clearly interfering with play.
The goal, however contentious, could not excuse United’s paltry performance in the first half, which was coated in sloppiness and casualness. Antonio Valencia clearly needs a rest as he’s been a shadow of the player he was last year, while Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs simply can’t produce the goods at this level anymore. Surely not when they’re asked to start the game.
Newcastle were unfortunate not to extend their lead before half-time as Marveaux’s free-kick struck the bar with David De Gea all but beaten.
Fergie, clearly not one to get swayed by the Christmas mood, unleashed the hairdryer treatment on mike Mike Dean and his assistant, before the start of the second half. Conspiracy theories are a very delicate – and mostly pathetic – topic, but Dean had a nightmare today. The fact that he was once relieved of his duty in a cup game because of his Merseyside background and that he allowed Didier Drogba’s offside goal to stand two years ago didn’t do him any favours either.
United were back in business 15 minutes after the restart when Patrice Evra pounced on a poor clearance by James Perch to fire home the equaliser past Tim Krul. United’s first real chance in the second half had led to a goal but there was much more drama to be had before the final whistle.
Ten minutes later, former United’s misfit Gabriel Obertan raced past Chris Smalling, his cross founding Papiss Cisse who smashed a brilliant left-foot finish to put the Toon in front for the third time. United bounced back immediately as Robin Van Persie drilled home the third equaliser of the game after Tim Krul had repelled his first effort.
With little more than 10 minute left, the Dutchman was inches away from converting a brilliant pass from Michael Carrick, before Javier Hernandez squandered a glorious chance a minute later and Sammy Ameobi hit the post at the other hand.
Hernandez and Van Persie went close again, their headers ending on Tim Krul and just wide of the post respectively, before the the Mexican converted Carrick’s cross past Krul, to send Old Trafford berserk and his team seven points clear of City. Much like those family reunions at Christmas, United could be painful and unbearable, but the ordeal is worth in the end.