This is the 16th full season in the Old Trafford career of Paul Scholes, who has been around so long that he was actually playing when Newcastle United were still serious Premier League title contenders. A lot has changed for Newcastle in that time but precious little for Scholes.
He has lived through the United eras of Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo and is still here doing what he does best. It was under Scholes' spell that Newcastle fell last night, fatally allowing the 35-year-old to dictate the play and make it look so very easy for the home side.
In the directors' box last night was Franco Baldini, Fabio Capello's lieutenant and the man who tried, during that mad night in May, to coax Scholes out of retirement for one last England swansong in South Africa. The Capello camp always maintain that Scholes agreed to do it and then changed his mind overnight. Last night Baldini was not the only one wondering what difference Scholes might have made.
For Newcastle it was a chastening return to the Premier League although no less than they deserved. When Scholes crossed the ball for Ryan Giggs to volley in his side's third with five minutes left it could have been any point in the last 15 years for United. Newcastle might have been out of the Premier League for a year but very little has changed while they were away.
The barb aimed at Wayne Rooney from the away support became audible halfway through the first half. "Where were you in Africa?" was the question, which was not, you can be sure, a polite inquiry as to how he spent his holidays.
If that is as bad as the World Cup backlash gets then Rooney will be thankful. It is hard to imagine now that six years ago, when he returned from Euro 2004 as the hottest property in English football, that it was Newcastle who made Everton the first offer for him thus forcing Manchester United to use next summer's transfer kitty to sign the striker.
Those days for Newcastle are long gone and it was the team that got them promoted from the Championship – apart from James Perch – that they fielded last night. The faces might be the same as those relegated from the Premier League last year but as a club they are much less of a force in the transfer market. And at Old Trafford there is no hiding place for a team like that.
As for Manchester United, hope springs eternal. On the bench Sir Alex Ferguson picked the strikers Federico Macheda and Javier Hernandez, the inspiration behind the sombreros in the crowd. The Newcastle fans sang "There's only one greedy bastard," in reference to Michael Owen. But Owen was not even a substitute for the home side.
Even so, Ferguson stuck with the 4-4-2 formation that he deployed against Chelsea at Wembley which meant a start for Dimitar Berbatov. The striker scored United's first goal on 33 minutes when Scholes played a neat pass inside the left-back Jose Enrique and Berbatov beat Steve Harper with a shot across him.
It was that easy for Ferguson's side who gradually turned the screw on Newcastle's five-man midfield. Joey Barton got the kind of reception that an ex-Manchester City Liverpudlian with a criminal record might expect to get at Old Trafford. Alongside Alan Smith, who was welcomed back warmly, he struggled to halt the tide.
Andy Carroll was the away team's most promising threat on the pitch. He should have scored with a free header from Barton's corner after 10 minutes. But he roughed up Nemanja Vidic in a way that few can do and he beat John O'Shea with his power and pace on the right side to put over a decent cross.
There was a gloomy inevitability for Newcastle about United's second goal four minutes before half-time. Luis Nani, a lively presence on the left, played in Patrice Evra in the box. His cross was not gathered in by Rooney but Darren Fletcher, who had a poor first half by his standards, turned on the ball and scored from close range.
It was a battle in the second half for Newcastle and one that was increasingly fought closer and closer to their own goal. Chris Hughton encouraged Kevin Nolan to push on whenever he could which meant that Newcastle only had four in midfield rather than the usual five that visiting teams deploy at Old Trafford.
As a result Scholes enjoyed the kind of freedom that invites problems for opposing teams. He picked up his regulation booking for a badly late tackle on Nolan but mostly he orchestrated the best of his team's moves.
It was Scholes' ball into Rooney on 54 minutes that the latter flicked beautifully into the path of Berbatov in the area. He really should have hit the target with the Newcastle defence behind him and only Steve Harper to beat.
When Rooney was substituted after the hour he was given the "You let your country down," treatment by the Newcastle fans. The home fans responded with their usual sentiments about the England team. This is a theme that looks likely to run and run this season.
The Mexico international Hernandez was given a rousing welcome on his Old Trafford debut and was unlucky to be marginally judged offside as he ran onto a through-ball and went round Harper. United's third from Giggs was no less than they deserved. All that was missing was a crowning goal from Scholes.
Manchester United 4-4-2: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, J Evans, Evra (R Da Silva, 87); Valencia, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani (Giggs, 71); Berbatov, Rooney (Hernandez, 63). Substitutes not used: Smalling, Carrick, Macheda, Kuszczak (gk).
Booked Scholes, Fletcher
Newcastle United 4-4-1-1: Harper; Perch, Williamson, Coloccini, Enrique; Routledge, Smith, Barton, Gutierrez (Xisco, 80); Nolan (Ameobi, 71); Carroll. Substitutes not used: Taylor, Krul (gk), Vuckic, Ranger, Tavernier.
Booked Barton, Perch
Man of the match Scholes.
Referee C Foy
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