Football: Champions' celebrations fall flat

Manchester United 0 Newcastle United 0
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The Independent Online
They came in their red and white trappings to applaud the champions last night - only to find the party was a flop. Manchester United could break out the champagne to celebrate their fourth title in five seasons, but the football from either side was sadly non-vintage.

The home team had the excuse of little to play for, but Newcastle? They had a potential Champions' League place beckoning, yet they began defensively and only attacked with conviction in the closing minutes. That David May came closest for them, hitting his own post 15 minutes from time with an attempted clearance, summed up their limited ambition.

"We made it difficult for them and at times we made it difficult for ourselves," Kenny Dalglish, the Newcastle manager, said. "It was a bit flat, which was understandable from United's point of view, but it's not a bad result for us. It gives us something to play for on Sunday."

Alex Ferguson said that three games in six days had taken their toll. "Newcastle had a hard game on Tuesday and in that situation you can't find it. They did what they had to do but maybe that little bit extra was missing."

Just in case anyone had forgotten, a plane circled round the ground before the kick-off with a banner reading: "MUFC Carling Champions Again". There was serious business, Newcastle's attempt to finish second not the least of it, but the match began in a carnival atmosphere as Newcastle formed a guard of honour to welcome the champions. "It's the least they deserved," Dalglish said.

The charity ended there, as a visiting line-up including four full-backs testified. The appearances were not deceptive because Newcastle spent most of the match defending while hoping to catch their opponents off guard with a breakaway. The closest they came to it came after eight minutes when Les Ferdinand teed up the ball and Warren Barton pulled it just wide from the edge of the area.

Not that the home team were exactly swashbuckling. They had a lot of possession but trying to locate gaps in the blue-grey wall in front of them was close to impossible. Only occasionally did they escape their chains, most notably when Eric Cantona and Phil Neville both played exquisite back-heels and Andy Cole shot like a pebble out of a catapult towards Pavel Srnicek. The pounds 7m striker's actions do not always match his intent and he was halted by the Newcastle goalkeeper, Karel Poborsky chipping just wide from the rebound.

If the match had sometimes resembled a testimonial, it certainly did not after half-time when Newcastle's urgency to get a win was matched by some fierce tackling from both sides. David Batty began it with a late challenge on Paul Scholes, whose retaliation a few minutes later earned him a caution.

Worse was to follow after 53 minutes when John Beresford caught Gary Neville high and late. Neville is normally the epitome of cool but this time his temper exploded and he pushed Beresford to the floor. Fortunately for him the referee produced a yellow card when he could have brandished red.

The incident brought some legitimate passion to the proceedings and United hit the bar twice in four minutes. Scholes turned twice before chipping on to the corner of the posts, then Cole span away from his marker and hit the bar from a narrow angle.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, P Neville; Poborsky, Beckham, Keane (McClair, 9), Scholes; Cantona; Cole (Solskjaer, 73). Substitutes not used: Irwin, Pallister, Van der Gouw (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Watson, Albert, Peacock; Beresford; Gillespie, Barton, Batty, Elliott; Ferdinand (Asprilla, 79), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Hamilton, Clark, Beardsley, Hislop (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

n Kenny Dalglish confirmed last night that Newcastle have signed the Danish international midfield player Jan Dahl Tomasson from the Dutch club, Heerenveen.

FA Carling Premiership

P W D L F A Pts

Man Utd (C) 37 20 12 5 74 44 72

Liverpool 37 19 10 8 61 36 67

Newcastle 37 18 11 8 68 40 65

Arsenal 37 18 11 8 59 31 65

Aston Villa 37 16 10 11 46 34 58

Chelsea 37 15 11 11 56 54 56

Sheffield Wed 37 14 14 9 49 50 56

Wimbledon 37 14 11 12 48 46 53

Tottenham 37 13 7 17 43 49 46

Derby 37 11 13 13 44 55 46

Leeds 37 11 12 14 27 37 45

Leicester 37 11 11 15 42 52 44

Blackburn 37 9 15 13 40 39 42

West Ham 37 10 12 15 39 46 42

Everton 37 10 12 15 43 55 42

Southampton 37 10 11 16 50 55 41

Sunderland 37 10 10 17 35 52 40

*Middlesbro 37 10 11 16 50 59 38

Coventry 37 8 14 15 36 53 38

Ntm Forest (R) 37 6 16 15 31 54 34

Remaining fixtures

SUNDAY

Aston Villa v Southampton

Blackburn Rovers v Leicester City

Derby County v Arsenal

Everton v Chelsea

Leeds Utd v Middlesbrough

Manchester Utd v West Ham Utd

Newcastle Utd v Nottingham Forest

Sheffield Wednesday v Liverpool

Tottenham Hotspur v Coventry

Wimbledon v Sunderland

*Middlesbrough deducted three points

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