Football: United's champion show: Newcastle suffer their first Premiership defeat as Gillespie supplies a crowning moment to put pretenders in their place

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Manchester United. . .2 Pallister 11, Gillespie 77 Newcastle United . . .0 Attendance: 43,795 IN THE space of seven days, Manchester United have emphatically demonstrated to their closest rivals that reports of the champions putting all their early season eggs into the European basket are exaggerated. First Blackburn, and now Newcastle, have been scrambled.

Yesterday at Old Trafford, United reinforced the impression they gave at Ewood Park last Sunday of having recaptured the dynamism that characterised their play last season. They frequently swept forward with the verve their roaring support demands and efficiently quelled a Newcastle attack emasculated by the absence of Andy Cole.

All this combined to end the leaders' unbeaten run at 18 matches, United in the process becoming the first team to stop them scoring. United have now won all their six home league matches without conceding a goal.

Such statistics should help United travel to Barcelona this week with high hopes. More important perhaps was the manner of their performance in a match that fulfilled its glamorous top-table billing - 'a fabulous game,' said the United manager, Alex Ferguson. Victory in an atmosphere that reflected the ground's clamorous reputation should refuel them for the high-octane encounter in the Nou Camp.

Newcastle had won the Coca-Cola Cup contest in midweek against United's new crop of babes. This, though, was the real thing and yesterday it was the visitors who appeared the younger. Ironically, their fate was sealed by a splendid, virtuoso goal from the 19-year-old Ulsterman Keith Gillespie, who had come on as a substitute for Ryan Giggs, which left Newcastle and the rest of us wondering just how United find them.

As ever, Newcastle played thoughtfully, smoothly and openly, but without the finishing figure who might have earned them something from the match. 'We were a bit of a toothless tiger on the day,' admitted their manager, Kevin Keegan, who has decided to rest Cole and his shin splints for a month. Cole has missed four matches since joining the club and Newcastle have lost all of them. Indeed, but for Pavel Srnicek's positioning and reflexes in their goal yesterday, they would have lost by a larger margin.

'We knew they would come and try to beat us,' Ferguson said. 'Some teams come here playing five in midfield so you don't have to worry too much defensively, but Newcastle make you sweat. Their last-third play is excellent, with their one- and two-touch football.'

Indeed it was, and they provided plenty of early signs; Philippe Albert shooting just wide, Peter Beardsley and Robert Lee, returning a little gingerly after an absence of four matches with injury, both testing Peter Schmeichel, all in the first five minutes.

United quickly asserted themselves, Paul Ince clearly riled by the thought of coming off second best on his patch of turf. Stung, they took the lead on 11 minutes after Steve Watson had brought down Ince and from Giggs's free-kick on the left, Gary Pallister headed home from six yards.

It exposed the weakness in the centre of Newcastle's defence created because Albert moved forward to hold midfield in the reorganisation caused by Cole's absence. Going forward, naturally, it scarcely showed, even if Ruel Fox was unusually ineffective.

They had two good chances to gather some reward. In the first half, Scott Sellars saw his shot from close range blocked by a combination of Steve Bruce and the ubiquitous Ince. The other also fell to Scott Sellars, whose mishit volley at the start of the second half was only just wide of Schmeichel's left-hand post.

It would have been an injustice had they succeeded, however. Srnicek had to palm, parry and pull down a deluge of shots, twice from Kanchelskis, Giggs and Hughes, with Cantona the chief supplier. His best save was from Hughes's sidefoot after Kanchelskis had crossed low. Ince also hit the bar with a thumping drive from 25 yards before Gillespie sealed United's victory.

Receiving the ball wide on the left from Cantona, he cut inside, drifted past Watson and Steve Howey and from the edge of the area drove a shot low past Srnicek's left hand. Images of George Best sprang from the mind's eye, as they often do at Old Trafford.

More might have followed - Hughes fired just over, Srnicek denied Kanchelskis brilliantly - as United finished the match at a pace that all but defied belief. But the deed was done, crowned by a fitting goal. It should all have been useful preparation for Newcastle's return in Bilbao on Tuesday; United, meanwhile, can put their eggs in the Barcelona basket.

---------------------------------------------------------------- Premiership top six ---------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Newcastle 12 9 2 1 29 12 29 Nottm Forest 12 8 3 1 25 13 27 Man Utd 12 8 1 3 21 9 25 Blackburn 12 7 3 2 25 12 24 Liverpool 11 7 2 2 27 11 23 Leeds 12 6 3 3 18 13 21 ---------------------------------------------------------------- (Photograph omitted)

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