An uninspiring performance from United resulted in a dull draw against Newcastle at St. James’ Park as United failed to extend their lead at the top of the table to nine points.
Top goalscorer, Dimitar Berbatov wasn’t even on the substitute’s bench despite travelling to Newcastle with the squad. Sir Alex Ferguson stated post match that he hadn’t felt well but many cynics are viewing Berbatov’s non-inclusion as punishment for a poor performance against Manchester City on Saturday.
United started brightly and Javier Hernandez missed from close range early on after a long ball from Patrice Evra found Wayne Rooney down the left. Rooney played a ball across the centre that was marginally too close to Newcastle ‘keeper Tim Krul, who managed to thwart Hernandez from with a foot of the Mexican striker.
The next ten minutes was all Newcastle. They pressed high up the pitch and forced United into silly errors but for all the pressure never really looked like scoring. Their spell was aided by United’s terrible ball retention and seeming inability to put a tackle in.
United played a very narrow 4-4-2 and that lack of width contributed to the few chances created in the first-half. Hernandez fired wide from 25 yards out and when a clear cut chance did come, Rooney fluffed his lines as he went one on one with Krul.
United’s midfield was the embodiment of the whole team; devoid of creativity. Anderson was ineffectual and gave the ball away far too cheaply, too often in the first-half while Michael Carrick was a virtual passenger until his booking for tripping the excellent Cheik Tiote.
The second-half began as it was to go on, with United having good spells of possession without creating many opportunities. Anderson and Carrick appeared to have a bit more urgency in the half and Carrick especially showed a lot more desire than in the first 45 minutes. Any hangover from the City game appeared to have been in the first-half because in the second he was a driving force for United.
The Reds could have been in an even worse situation if the appalling Lee Probert had given a penalty for Anderson’s trip on Peter Lovenkrands. Fortunately for the Brazilian, Lovenkrands’ flick of the leg and look at the referee as he was going over convinced Probert that he was playing for it. Things evened themselves out just a short while later when Rooney’s drive was saved well by Tiote inside the box, but again play was waved on.
United continued to press without ever looking like making anything until a run and delightful chip from Patrice Evra freed the Frenchman to put the ball on a plate for Ryan Giggs, who miscued from 12 yards out and put it wide. The miss summed up Giggs’ evening as the Welshman struggled on his return the team after a couple of majestic displays against Chelsea in the Champions League.
Antonio Valencia replaced Anderson and Michael Owen replaced Nani as the clock ticked down, but neither substitute was able to change anything. Owen’s introduction especially did little to improve United’s chances as it removed the League’s leading assister – however bad a night he was having, Nani and led to Rooney’s deployment on the left-wing. Owen then started dropping unnecessarily deep to the detriment of United’s attack when he wasn’t amongst the numbers charging at Newcastle’s back line of eight.
In the first minute of stoppage time Hernandez was booked for a dive in Newcastle’s box in a decision which could have gone either way, after he theatrically tumbled over a clumsy challenge from former United man, Danny Simpson.
One last chance came and went for United when Rooney headed Valencia’s deep-cross wide of the target in the final seconds of the game.
Newcastle were very disciplined at the back and credit has to go to them for their ability to shut United out for a hard-earned and probably deserved point. They were well organised and set up for a draw in the second-half and that’s exactly what they got.
As for United, a chance to move one-step closer to a 19th title has passed by and will once more reignite Arsenal’s flailing challenge ahead of their North-London derby away at Tottenham tomorrow evening. Every time United have had a chance to pull away from Arsenal this season complacency has taken over and put a stop to it. This was United’s ninth away draw of the campaign which is contrasted by only five wins, change just one of those draws into victory and the title would be within touching distance.
With games against both Arsenal and Chelsea still to come, the destination of the Premier League trophy is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The starting line-up
1. van der Sar 6; 22. O’Shea 5, 12. Smalling 7, 15. Vidic 6, 3. Evra 6; 17. Nani 5(7. Owen 80), 16. Carrick 6, 8. Anderson 5(25. Valencia 70 5), 11. Giggs 5; 10. Rooney 6, 14. Hernandez 6.
Referee: Lee Probert
Attendance: 49, 025