United pulls away from the pack

Published : Mar 14, 2009 00:00 IST

Dimitar Berbatov (middle) shoots Manchester United’s match-winner against Newcastle.-PICS: AP Dimitar Berbatov (middle) shoots Manchester United’s match-winner against Newcastle.
Dimitar Berbatov (middle) shoots Manchester United’s match-winner against Newcastle.-PICS: AP Dimitar Berbatov (middle) shoots Manchester United’s match-winner against Newcastle.

Dimitar Berbatov (middle) shoots Manchester United’s match-winner against Newcastle.-PICS: AP Dimitar Berbatov (middle) shoots Manchester United’s match-winner against Newcastle.

Manchester United is still the envy of its rivals since an uneven effort brought an 11th consecutive Premier League victory, writes Kevin McCarra.

It was not to be the night that prised open the contest for the title, but at least there was a tremor of uncertainty. Manchester United conceded a goal and, what is more, fell behind in the process. While a recovery to re-establish their seven-point lead was then completed, this was not the normal show of mastery. They are still the envy of their rivals since an uneven effort brought an 11th consecutive league victory.

There is real encouragement for Newcastle United in this latest defeat. The sustained show of spirit had Obafemi Martins demanding a save from Edwin van der Sar as late as the 85th minute. The visitors’ centre-half Nemanja Vidic complained in the second-half that the Nigerian’s elbow had left him with a bloodied cheek.

Newcastle, of course, would claim the contact was inadvertent. Explanations do not come so readily for Steven Taylor’s impulsiveness on the verge of half-time. He kicked Cristiano Ronaldo and swung an arm at his neck as well before, in the same passage of play, fouling Michael Carrick. Somehow the catalogue of disorder warranted a mere yellow card from the referee. United were indignant and there were squabbles with some Newcastle players in the tunnel as the sides made for the dressing rooms.

Feistiness, broadly speaking, will be an asset for the squad currently led by the caretaker manager, Chris Hughton. His side did, at least, show us a Manchester United who can struggle to keep the ball and who get flustered. With Newcastle 1–0 up, for instance, the visitors were so disoriented by such a peculiar state of affairs that Vidic, baffled by the lively Martins, cynically brought down the attacker and was cautioned in the 18th minute.

Newcastle were undeterred by the extraction of just one win from their previous nine league games. The confidence proved a shock to stop the clocks. More precisely, it ended Van der Sar’s stretch of impregnability in the league at 1,311 minutes. Danny Verlinden can relax. His 1,390 invulnerable minutes with Bruges in 1990 survives as the record for Europe’s top-flight domestic leagues. This, all the same, will not have been a subject that was preying on Var der Sar’s mind. His thoughts must have been fully taken up with the mistake that left United a goal behind. Newcastle did show brightness to set up the opportunity, breaking at speed from a corner by the visitors. Very few teams ever seem to catch Sir Alex Ferguson’s team off-balance in that manner. Jose Enrique cut the ball back for Jonas Gutierrez and Van der Sar spilled the shot, leaving Peter Lovenkrands to knock in his first goal for Newcastle.

While the wet surface had presented difficulties, it was still a shock to see Van der Sar incapable of adjusting. The concept of United appearing frail had been inconceivable beforehand.

After all, they had turned the screw when they rotated the squad for this match. As expected, the side was much altered from the selection that won the Carling Cup.

The opposition will have recognised it, with some regard, as a variant on the line-up that had comfortably recorded a 0–0 draw in the Champions League tie with Internazionale at San Siro. Vidic and Wayne Rooney took over, respectively, from Jonny Evans and Ryan Giggs.

United’s slickness could not be concealed indefinitely. The equaliser, after 20 minutes, was simple and unanswerable. The right-back John O’Shea worked a one-two with Park Ji-sung before finding Rooney and the attacker stepped inside Fabriccio Coloccini before finishing with a low shot that took a faint deflection. Some of the usual composure had returned to the visitors, even if Vidic did put a free header wide from a Michael Carrick corner after 40 minutes.

The game had been spattered with errors and a note of disorder was to be the undoing of Newcastle in the 56th minute. A crossfield pass from Rooney should have presented no worries, but Steven Taylor sought to chest it in the direction of his goalkeeper, Steve Harper, and merely plopped it into the path of the ever-alert Park. His low ball was then knocked into the net from close range by Dimitar Berbatov.

Newcastle’s difficulty thereafter was that Ferguson’s side made them conduct the struggle much closer to their own goal than they wished. Hughton, nonetheless, would have appreciated the signs of a survival instinct in the ranks. Harper assisted with a save that put a rising drive by Berbatov over the bar. So far as Manchester United were concerned, the narrowness of the lead was more than compensated for by the fact that they had, in the end, found a semblance of the command that normally comes to them so naturally.

The Results

March 7: Sunderland 1 (Richardson 3) drew with Tottenham 1 (Keane 89). Half-time: 1-0.

March 4: Blackburn 0 drew with Everton 0; Fulham 0 lost to Hull 1 (Manucho 90+3). Half-time: 0-0; Manchester City 2 (Elano pen-24, Wright-Phillips 89) bt Aston Villa 0. Half-time: 1-0; Newcastle 1 (Lovenkrands 9) lost to Manchester United 2 (Rooney 20, Berbatov 56). Half-time: 1-1; Stoke 2 (Beattie 14, Fuller 73) bt Bolton 0. Half-time: 1-0; Tottenham 4 (Keane 9, Pavlyuchenko 14, Lennon 40 & 79) bt Middlesbrough 0. Half-time: 3-0; Wigan 0 lost to West Ham 1 (Cole 34). Half-time: 0-1.

March 3: Liverpool 2 (Ngog 52, Benayoun 65) bt Sunderland 0. Half-time: 0-0; Portsmouth 0 lost to Chelsea 1 (Drogba 79). Half-time: 0-0; West Brom 1 (Brunt 7) lost to Arsenal 3 (Bendtner 4 & 44, Toure 38). Half-time: 1-3.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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