Manchester United 1
THE gap between Newcastle United's ambition and Manchester United's accomplishment may have closed a little at St James' Park yesterday, but Newcastle now know just how resilient the champions are, and just how much it takes to reap a point from them even when claiming 90 per cent of possession.
Paul Ince was the epitome of Manchester United's ability to absorb any amount of possession and snatch a goal when appearing to be fully occupied with confronting a siege. That Newcastle's Andy Cole still managed to equalise was not only deserved but confirmed his side's return to the elite.
Kevin Keegan had confessed that while his largely English team have surpassed most people's expectations this season, Manchester United's more cosmopolitan ensemble have much more in reserve. The idea of Newcastle being able to rest a player of the stature of Ryan Giggs (or in yesterday's case Roy Keane) is the sort of luxury that even their generous chairman, Sir John Hall, is not yet able to offer.
Keegan is not complaining. Getting another season or two out of Peter Beardsley is a bonus England thought they could do without, and Newcastle's whole attitude brings hope that the next national team manager can exploit Keegan's reminder that football played accurately to feet, even in difficult conditions, is not something that can only be seen on Channel Four on Sunday afternoons.
The prospect of yesterday's encounter between teams of like minds and clubs with voracious ambitions was unequalled this season. The game nearly fulfilled the expectation. Keegan said United were the benchmark for Newcastle's standards, and Tyneside certainly drew on its past yesterday.
Newcastle's draw at Old Trafford earlier in the season had done a lot to convince them that they could do more than survive in the top division, and yesterday their determination quickly met the day's special challenge. Within seconds it was obvious that both sides would be searching for the unexpected. Newcastle's delightful short-passing probes as they approached the penalty area kept Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce's eyes peeled, while Beardsley was a symbol of Newcastle's spirit, roaring back 80 yards to defend during an early crisis. It was worth the effort: for an hour his team held the bulk of possession.
At first the tightness of the game in midfield tested the enthusiasm of the home crowd, and this could only assist Manchester United. However, just as they thought they had coped well with Newcastle's pressure, Pallister misheaded a clearance, letting Beardsley in for a 15-yard shot that Peter Schmeichel parried. Yet Beardsley remained the sharpest finisher on view, glancing a header close by the far post from the lively Lee Clark's centre.
Some of Manchester United's defending smacked of desperation, but the fierce wind in their faces in the first half had a lot to do with that. Clearances seemed to hit an invisible wall and Newcastle might have taken greater advantage had they chanced a few long shots. But that is not their way.
Schmeichel's ability to make his 6ft 4in frame seem even bigger again frustrated Newcastle early in the second half when Pallister made a straightforward clearance look difficult. Ever alert to any weakness, Beardsley snapped up the offering and moved quickly through the penalty area but Schmeichel spread himself to save.
The constant pressure forced Ince to spend most of his time just in front of the defence. His decision was well- founded, as Newcastle thrust forward unceasingly. Alex Ferguson's apparently curious reaction was to take off Mark Hughes and send on Andrei Kanchelskis, but the decision had a crucial part to play in Manchester United's goal on the hour that came tantalisingly against the run of play.
With his first contribution, Kanchelskis used his pace to threaten retreating defenders. Once he had played the ball in to Giggs - now in a central striking role - the danger magnified. Giggs slipped the ball to one side, and, at last, Ince risked a trip upfield. His low bending shot from some 15 yards screwed beyond Mike Hooper.
Although rarely deeply involved, Eric Cantona was always likely to intervene. Shortly after Ince's goal, the Frenchman's superb glanced header let Sharpe escape but Hooper again did well to push away the shot, allowing Newcastle to get the goal they had worked so tirelessly to obtain. In the 72nd minute another wonderfully inventive pass by Beardsley found Robert Lee, whose centre was headed firmly in by Cole from six yards.
Although Keegan said the result showed how far Newcastle had come, the home supporters went home complaining that they should have had two penalties. Keegan put it in perspective: 'They've just seen the champions of England - it's all sewn up.'
Steve Coppell, the former Crystal Palace manager, yesterday ended speculation that he would return to club football by accepting the post of chief executive of the League Managers' Association.
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