Football: Cole confirms United takeover

FA Premiership: Red Shirt Day at Newcastle as old boy puts leaders seven points clear of Chelsea
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The Independent Online
SIMON TURNBULL AT ST JAMES' PARK

Newcastle United 1 Manchester United 2

Solano 16 Cole 25, 51

Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 36,500

IT TOOK a freak deflection off Jimmy Greenhoff's chest for the Liverpool treble-chasers of 1977 to be denied what Alex Ferguson has called "the impossible dream". The double that Bob Paisley's boys went on to complete after their FA Cup final defeat - the European Cup and the top- flight championship - would probably be seized with eager hands by the Manchester United manager if he was offered it. But, for now, Fergie's trophy hunters are still going strong on all three fronts.

They embark on their European Inter mission in the San Siro on Wednesday unbeaten in 17 matches and with domestic matters tidily in hand, having seen off Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday night and come from behind to beat Ruud Gullit's resurgent Newcastle team at St James' Park yesterday afternoon. They strengthened their hold on the Premiership's pole position with Andy Cole twice hitting the bullseye at his favourite shooting gallery. The former Newcastle marksman scored in either half to take his strike record at St James' to 50 goals in 48 games. It might just be enough to catch Keegan's England eye.

Both goals were opportunist close-range efforts that came courtesy of Corporal Jones-class defending by the doddering home guard. But Ferguson's men still had to battle for their three points, having fallen behind to a goal by the player known on Tyneside as "Nobby". Fortunately for them, Nolberto Solano's 15th-minute free-kick proved to be the peak of Newcastle's attacking endeavours. "The spirit we are showing deserves reward," Ferguson said afterwards. "We couldn't be going to Milan in better shape, to be honest."

Peter Schmeichel could have been in better shape yesterday. Suffering from flu, the Dane was withdrawn from his last-line duties at half-time. "I didn't really want to play him," Ferguson confided, "but he should be all right for Wednesday night." So should Manchester United's European challenge, according to Gullit, who as a player twice paraded the continent's top club prize at the San Siro. "It's going to be hard for them," the former Milan No 10 said, "but I think they will get through."

For the Dutchman's Newcastle team, still in mid-table despite their recent upturn in fortunes, there was little more than pride at stake yesterday. It is possible, though, that they may shoot down Ferguson's hat-trick seekers at Wembley on 22 May and, such was the determination in their ranks in the opening stages, you could have been excused for thinking FA Cup final day had come early. They fought for every inch of their sand- trap of a pitch, Alan Shearer tackling Schmeichel when the keeper attempted to clear his lines and little Solano darting from right-wing to left-back to block David Beckham's attempted cross.

It was clear that the visiting United were going to have to scrap for possession, though they did gain sufficient of it to fire a couple of early warning shots. Ryan Giggs whipped a left-wing ball across the face of the home goal and Dwight Yorke tested Shay Given with a right-foot drive from 25 yards. With 15 minutes on the clock, however, they were fighting from behind.

The alarm bells rang for Manchester United when Dietmar Hamann was tripped by Jaap Stam 20 yards from the Leazes End goal. The danger, it seemed, was the German's pile-driving right foot. But, while Stam and his colleagues waited for Hamann's hammer blow to fall, they were caught off guard by the subtlety of Solano as the Peruvian curled a right-foot shot around the wall and in off Schmeichel's left-hand post.

It was as though the Sky had fallen in on the 2,000 Reds in attendance. Morning reports that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission had looked favourably upon Rupert Murdoch's proposed pounds 623m takeover bid doubtless darkened their mood. And, while the rest of St James' celebrated, they were a picture of dejection in the north-west corner of the Milburn Stand, right underneath the Sky Sports commentary box, as fate would have it.

They were not, however, brooding for very long. All the diligent home work was undone in the 24th minute when Gary Neville launched a long throw from the right. Though Henning Berg got his head to it, Given had a chance to clear the danger before Yorke flicked the ball on to Cole, who poked it past Newcastle's Irish goalkeeper from inside the six-yard box. It was into the same Gallowgate End net that the former Tyneside hero struck his first goal as Newcastle's chief predator against Notts County six years ago. It might have been followed by another before half-time if the man Kevin Keegan sold to Ferguson for pounds 6m plus Keith Gillespie had made the most of a Gary Neville cross.

The tide, though, had already turned decisively red. There was no stopping it even when Schmeichel failed to appear for the second-half. Raimond van der Gouw had not even touched the ball before Cole duly reached his St James' half- century five minutes after the break, ghosting unmarked to the near post to poke in Giggs' cross from the left.

And that was just about that. Ferguson's men closed ranks to such good effect Van der Gouw did not have a save to make. Off now to Italy with the comfort of three more points in the bag.

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