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Newcastle pay for early defensive lapses
IF Manchester United wanted to avenge the defeat on Tyneside which Alan Pardew described as Newcastle United’s strongest result of last season then they achieved their goal – perfectly.
While a 3-0 victory was the ideal way for the Magpies to see in the new year, it also set the tone for a 2012 in which Sir Alex Ferguson was left smarting come May, when Manchester City pipped them to the Premier League crown.
With nine of the Manchester United players involved on that January afternoon in the North-East around the matchday squad again yesterday, the majority of Ferguson’s team talk must have already been done for him.
And within the opening 16 minutes Newcastle, despite their best efforts to turn things around before half-time, had fallen two goals behind and were on course for their second home defeat since that memorable afternoon.
After two headed goals from Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra, both of whom were given too much freedom to turn in corners, Newcastle were unable to prevent a second defeat of the season in the Premier League.
By the time Tom Cleverley had curled in a terrific, perhaps slightly fortunate, third in the 71st minute there was nothing Newcastle could do to stop their opponents leaving with three points.
There was plenty of heart, plenty of verve and even a dangerous attacking threat posed to give Ferguson things to worry about.
But in the end an inability to stay tight at the back early on cost Newcastle.
The outcome might have been different had assistant referee Darren Cann ruled that Papiss Cisse’s diving header had crossed the line before Cleverley’s goal. But most of the damage had already been done.
With Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor ruled out through injury, it was always going to be difficult for the Magpies to emerge from an afternoon with Manchester United with anything. That is how it proved.
Despite another lively display from Hatem Ben Arfa, which had the visitors on high alert, Newcastle could not find the breakthrough which would have given the second half the lift-off more than 50,000 inside St James’ Park hoped for.
Manchester United looked full of intent, desperate to avoid becoming the first Ferguson team to lose three of their opening seven matches in Premier League history.
Ultimately it was that start, coupled with Newcastle’s indecisive opening at the back, which resulted in Manchester United pulling level with their city rivals in second place on 15 points.
Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie, both denied by goalkeeper Steve Harper, should both have done better in the Newcastle penalty area before Evans did rise to nod in the opener inside eight minutes.
Van Persie’s corner was floated over and Evans started his run from the left of the box, along with Mike Williamson, who was not up to speed with the runner.
Evans, who won the Championship during a loan spell with Sunderland, leaped high to power the opener beyond Harper’s outstretched right arm.
That was from their first corner and, after Rafael da Silva and Welbeck had both wasted fantastic chances to extend the lead, the second also ended up in the net, much to Pardew’s frustration.
On that occasion it was a Wayne Rooney set-piece from the opposite flank. Evra started his run from the edge of the area and was tracked by Demba Ba, who only caught up once the French full-back nodded low inside Harper’s near post.
To avoid defeat against Manchester United for a fourth time in a row in the league would have been an achievement in itself, but to have to come from two goals down was almost mission impossible.
That said, though, Newcastle showed the sort of fighting quality their fans have come to expect from a Pardew group of players, possessing character and team spirit in abundance.
While Newcastle might have struggled to find top gear so far this season, they have continued to show a mental toughness to grind out results and that was apparent in trying to close the gap yesterday.
After the shaky start, Newcastle suddenly found the impetus which was evident on a regular basis last season. As Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye ruffled the red midfield, Ben Arfa and Jonas Gutierrez caused problems for the visiting defence.
Gutierrez was first to go close as a half volley zipped narrowly wide off the surface after Evans had cleared a Ben Arfa delivery into the box.
Ba also side-footed a Cabaye centre over the crossbar from 12 yards when he should at least have tested David de Gea – just as Cisse should have done when he flicked Cabaye’s free-kick wide.
Had Newcastle gone ahead before the break things could have got interesting. And the same would have applied had they actually had the rub of the green four minutes after the interval.
But once referee Howard Webb and his assistant Darren Cann waved play on when Cisse’s diving header could easily have been deemed to have crossed the line there was simply no way back for Newcastle.
Initially Ba’s header from Shane Ferguson’s cross bounced off the bar and dropped invitingly for his striking compatriot at the back post.
Cisse’s diving header could have been more powerful, but still it seemed to have edged over the line, only for de Gea to race back, palm away and then clear.
Had that been given then Pardew’s half-time tinkering – playing Gutierrez more centrally with Cisse and Ben Arfa providing the attacking width – would have worked a treat.
But that decision knocked Newcastle and Manchester United grabbed the initiative once more.
After Harper had denied Rooney, who rolled a left-foot shot into the goalkeeper, the experienced Newcastle shot-stopper could do nothing to stop a third flying past him with 19 minutes remaining.
When Rooney rolled back to Cleverley, the England midfielder still had plenty to do. He saw van Persie – who was alleged to have elbowed Cabaye off the ball in the closing stages – lurking at the back post and, whether he meant it or not, the curl and precision of his delivery into Harper’s top left corner was unstoppable.
After that there was an air of inevitability around St James’ Park, with any slender hopes Newcastle had of an unlikely comeback disappearing along with the evening October sunshine.
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