By Liam Twomey
The last time a 3-0 scoreline between Newcastle and Manchester United was seen at the Sports Direct Arena back in January, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men suffered a comprehensive defeat which highlighted the flaws that would ultimately cost them a 20th league title by the finest of margins.
Nine months on, however, the Scot and his team will have left Tyneside in a far more contented mood – with last season’s embarrassment fully avenged, and another timely reminder served of what makes United this country’s most enduring and formidable contenders.
After Tottenham’s pace and direct running silenced Old Trafford last Saturday, some believed Newcastle were perfectly poised to deliver another damaging blow. Many more simply hoped to see United fall again. But those more familiar with Ferguson and his teams expected a reaction, and they duly delivered.
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The Scot’s team selection was in itself a gesture of defiance. Those with the temerity to question whether United’s seemingly frail backline could cope with the Magpies’ potent attacking threat were stunned into silence by the inclusion of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley from the start.
It was a side deployed to dominate rather than defend. Far from simply trying, to quote that tired old cliché, to ‘take the sting out of the game’ early on, the visitors carried the fight, teasing their hosts with unerring passing under pressure and forcing them back.
Admittedly, in gaining a decisive early lead, United’s cause was helped by some inexcusably slack defending. To lose one goal from a set-piece might in some circumstances be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two in seven minutes looks like carelessness. Newcastle handed their opponents the reward their initiative had deserved, and it never looked like being relinquished.
Alan Pardew’s men did show signs of life at two goals down, and enjoyed enough success to again hint at the weak United underbelly that will continue to exist as long as Nemanja Vidic’s body keeps failing him and Michael Carrick remains the closest thing in the midfield to a defensive shield.
Papiss Cisse came within an inch of a goal which might have altered the course of the afternoon, and the hosts’ aerial barrage occasionally threatened to take Ferguson’s men out of their comfort zone.
But despite boasting seven of the same names, this was not the timid and makeshift United side battered from pillar to post by a Marouane Fellaini-inspired Everton on the opening day of the season. This was the more familiar and fearsome beast of old, snapping and snarling off the ball and occasionally purring when on it.
A raucous home crowd tried their best to create an atmosphere akin to that deafening night at Goodison Park but, rather than wilt in such hostile surroundings, the visitors grew in stature. The challenge was accepted and met with considerable enthusiasm – perhaps even a little too much in the case of Van Persie, who will be lucky to escape Football Association punishment for an elbow on Yohan Cabaye.
Central to United’s effort at both ends of the pitch was Rooney. The speculation of a wounded ego caused by the summer arrival of Van Persie, quickly compounded by a far more obvious and horrifying wound to his leg sustained against Fulham, had led some to question whether England’s mercurial talisman would retain his position of primacy at club level.
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On Sunday the answer could not have been more emphatic, as he effortlessly orchestrated the majority of his team’s attacks while drifting menacingly around the final third. Whether this role suits him best is a debate for another day, but his stunning versatility is the mark of a truly special talent.
Such creativity only flourishes when given the opportunity to roam freely, and two assists were a just reflection of Rooney’s influence. Yet he was also mindful of his defensive duties, working tirelessly to help ensure the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Jonas Gutierrez invariably found dead ends with their probing runs.
United’s dominance was unquestionable, and while their third was fortunate – one suspects that, despite his claims to the contrary, Cleverley meant to find the top corner about as much as Steven Caulker meant to turn in Jermain Defoe’s wayward shot for Tottenham’s opener against Aston Villa – the scoreline was never in danger of flattering the visitors.
Of course, a good day cannot entirely mask the problems which may yet derail United’s title challenge at the crucial moment. But, on a weekend where Chelsea and Manchester City both bolstered their own with another three points, it is a reminder that Ferguson and his men will, as ever, take some beating.
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