United had rattled in 26 goals in their seven previous matches, including five against hapless Brondby in midweek, but the verve and imagination was as absent yesterday as it had been spectacularly present in their Champions' League game. Indeed, Newcastle, who have won only once at this ground in their last 33 league visits, could easily have secured an unexpected victory.
Ruud Gullit packed the midfield, brought in several younger players to resist their opponents' pace and stifled their fluency almost completely. "We made it tactically very difficult for them to play their game," the Newcastle manager said. He did, and the result was that United, who had hoped to maintain the pressure on the Premiership leaders, Aston Villa, failed, allowing Arsenal to leapfrog over them into second place.
"It was a flat performance by us," Alex Ferguson conceded, "and it begs the question about games after Europe. The pitch did not help us, it was very poor but I thought Newcastle's tactics were terrific. They forced us on the back foot all the time, pressed us hard and for a team that is supposed to be struggling they played with great confidence."
Ferguson had purred like a contented cat about his team's performance in the first half against Brondby but you suspect the claws were out during the interval yesterday. It was an error-strewn opening period in which United looked jaded after their midweek labours, in mind as much as in body.
Part of the power failure was due to Newcastle, who laboured ferociously to stop Roy Keane and co running rampant as they had against the Danes. The rest was down to United, who began with a flash of brilliance when Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke back-heeled twice to allow Paul Scholes to slice through the visitors. His shot, like the team's subsequent play, did not match the quick feet of his colleagues, however, and he pushed the ball wide of a post.
The move had been breath-taking but rather than prove a springboard for further flamboyance, it was Newcastle who slowly gained a greater share of possession. Alan Shearer almost caught Peter Schmeichel dawdling with a quick free-kick after 21 minutes that the Dane only just scampered across his line to save and then the England captain caused alarm with a shot on the turn.
That danger was surpassed in the 39th minute when Shearer headed on, Paul Dalglish pushed beyond Schmeichel's charge and was only halted by a muscular challenge from Denis Irwin. Newcastle appealed for a penalty (and television evidence suggested with good reason); the referee ruled a shoulder charge.
At least that startled United out of their lethargy and after 63 minutes they should have taken the lead. Gary Neville made to pass to the flank and then delivered an inch-perfect through ball between the Newcastle centre-backs. David Beckham did not rush his shot - if anything he was too relaxed - but after drawing Shay Given forward in textbook fashion he pulled his shot wide.
As the match stretched into injury time Beckham had a chance to seal the points with a signature free-kick 25 yards out. The angle was perfect, the shot far from so and it barely rose above knee height before thudding into the defensive wall. It summed up the match perfectly: a below-par Mancunian effort stopped by Newcastle obduracy.
"We had four good chances in the second half," Ferguson lamented, "and in a tight match you would expect to put one in. One-nil would have done fine for us." Instead 0-0 will have done fine for Villa and Arsenal.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown (Johnsen, 57, Butt, 82), Stam, G Neville, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Blomqvist (Solskjaer, 88); Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Cruyff, Van der Gouw (gk).
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Charvet, Hughes, Dabizas, Griffin; Georgiadis, Hamann (Speed, 66), Batty, Glass; Shearer, Dalglish. Substitutes not used: Pearce, Solano, Barton, Harper (gk).
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).
Bookings: Manchester United: Stam, Beckham, Blomqvist. Newcastle: Charvet, Dabizas, Shearer.
Man of the match: G Neville.
Attendance: 55,174.Reuse content