Berbatov gives United a good look

Newcastle United 1 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Online

When Sir Alex Ferguson comes to St James' Park he is accustomed to saying something mildly patronising about the locals' passion for their club, patting them on the head and then taking all three points. At least last night Newcastle United put up something resembling a fight but they still ended it just one more subjugated corner of Ferguson's English football empire.

With 11 games left, time is running out for those who have pretences of catching the champions, and for those who can barely live with them there is always the name-calling route. Steven Taylor's half-time retort to Cristiano Ronaldo – "Yeah, but you're ugly" – was, on the grand scale of witty comebacks, more Vicky Pollard than Oscar Wilde. Yet, in its own inarticulate way, it summed up the helplessness that the rest of the League is experiencing in the face of United's onslaught.

Are United feeling the pressure from Chelsea and Liverpool's wins on Tuesday night? It did not look like it. Can they still be caught now that their seven-point lead, not forgetting that game in hand, has been restored? The chances look slim. Peter Lovenkrands' ninth minute goal, as well as Newcastle's early energy, had the champions rattled but when they regained their composure they swatted aside the Geordies.

Wayne Rooney was outstanding, scoring the first and then hitting the pass that caused the chaos in Newcastle's defence which led to the second from Dimitar Berbatov. Only in defence did Ferguson's team look occasionally hesitant, especially in Newcastle's good spell in the first half when, even the Manchester United manager admitted, Edwin van der Sar made a "mess" in the lead up to Lovenkrands' goal. His unbeaten record went with a whimper.

Van der Sar's run of consecutive 1,311 minutes without conceding in the League ended when he dropped Jonas Gutierrez's shot at the feet of Lovenkrands for a tap-in. Last season, Ferguson's team scored 11 goals in their two League games against Newcastle so going one behind was not what they had planned. Yet by the 56th minute they were in the lead and cruising.

As for Newcastle, this was the latest chapter in an increasingly desperate season which, albeit more dignified than last season's 6-0 (at Old Trafford) and 5-1 (at home) defeat, could yet end in relegation. They are one point and two places above the relegation zone in 16th place. They cannot afford to lose their next game away at Hull on 14 March because their following two games are against Arsenal and Chelsea which means by the time they play Stoke on 11 April they could well be in the bottom three.

Steven Taylor's decision to aim a punch at Ronaldo in the minutes before half-time was stupid. There is always a temptation to lose one's temper with Ronaldo, but the arm to Ronaldo's head that Taylor landed was inexcusable. He followed it up by sweeping Michael Carrick off his feet and it is a miracle Steve Bennett did not dismiss him. As for Taylor's tunnel dispute with Ronaldo it is highly unlikely that he could ever persuade Manchester United's superstar that he is ugly. Ronaldo has long had the demeanour of a bloke who likes what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

Strangely, amid all the excitement of those early minutes when Newcastle took the game to United there was a truly ugly moment involving Alan Smith. The Manchester United old boy launched a terrible two-footed tackle at Ronaldo which in any other circumstances would have had Ferguson's players baying for punishment. Instead they just looked shocked, embarrassed even, that an old acquaintance had done that.

It was Smith's first start since the last match of last season, against Everton, and his influence soon waned. For a while Obafemi Martins had the beating of Nemanja Vidic, drawing the Serbian into a booking. Then Rooney equalised on 20 minutes. John O'Shea to Park Ji-Sung down the left, the ball cut back to Rooney who left Fabricio Coloccini standing before hitting his shot. A slight deflection off Steven Taylor and it was past Steve Harper.

It was just 11 minutes into the second half when Ryan Taylor made a terrible hash of chesting a long ball from Rooney back to Harper. Instead Taylor just cushioned the ball into the stride of Park, just behind him, and the Korean midfielder pushed it past Harper. Berbatov was at the back post to stroke the ball into the goal.

Only one team in it after that. Later, when Harper was stranded having come out to stop Ronaldo, Rooney failed to hit the target with his lob. On the touchline, Ferguson was enraged, flapping his arms in anger. He needed not have worried. His team are beginning to look unstoppable in this title race – even when they have to win ugly.

Goals: Lovenkrands (9) 1-0; Rooney (20) 1-1; Berbatov (56) 1-2.

Newcastle United (4-4-1-1): Harper; S Taylor, Coloccini, Bassong, Enrique; R Taylor (Carroll, 77), Smith (LuaLua, 82), Geremi, Gutierrez; Lovenkrands; Martins. Substitutes not used: Krul (gk), Cacapa, Butt, Ameobi, Edgar.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Fletcher, Carrick, Park; Berbatov (Giggs, 89), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Anderson, Scholes, Evans, Tevez, Eckersley.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Newcastle United S Taylor; Manchester United: Vidic, Ferdinand.

Man of the match: Ferdinand.

Attendance: 51,636.

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