For the second Sunday in a row Manchester United showed why they need to recruit a "top striker", as their manager Sir Alex Ferguson put it in his programme notes, but, unlike last weekend, they didn't get away with it. They defeated Portsmouth in the meaningless Community Shield but, this time, when it really mattered, there were no penalties. United had to rely on open play and, worryingly for them, were found lacking. It's a problem Ferguson said needed to be addressed last week. Now it's even more urgent.
However, with Dimitar Berbatov back in Bulgaria for international duty – and yesterday making it clear on his arrival in Sofia that he is desperate to leave Tottenham Hotspur and that "no one can disagree with me wanting to pursue my dream" – that signing may be delayed a few more days. United have been here before, and drew their opening game last season – at home to Reading – before spending much of the last campaign getting away with it without a central striker of stature. But it would be foolish to expect the same for another season.
Yesterday the problem was exacerbated by the unexpected loss of Carlos Tevez who has flown back to Argentina to deal with a family bereavement, thought to be the death of his uncle. With Cristiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha injured – along with Owen Hargreaves and Park Ji-Sung – while Nani is suspended, it left even a club of the resources of United severely stretched. The absence was all the more acute for Ferguson given that Tevez had been United's most impressive pre-season performer whose form, in the light of Ronaldo's travails, had helped maintain the shining expectations of garnering a second hat-trick of league titles and a successful tilt at retaining the Champions League trophy.
There was another injury to deal with. Michael Carrick limped off midway through the first half and that put paid to his prospects of being involved in England's friendly against the Czech Republic on Wednesday. Not that that will concern Ferguson who cut a frustrated figure on the touchline as, all too often, his team's swift approach play broke down impotently.
It was all the more frustrating for United as Newcastle usually travel to Old Trafford for a ritual slaughter. Goals are plundered against them in multiples but, in the face of absences of their own, notably Michael Owen and Mark Viduka, they showed an uncharacteristic grit with Jonas Gutierrez an impressive debutant and his fellow Argentine, Fabricio Collocini, a no-nonsense presence in defence. It, along with the tidy display of Danny Guthrie, bodes well. Still they had to be indebted, as so often, to the bravery and agility of their goalkeeper Shay Given for containing the scoreline.
The Irishman executed a string of impressive saves, starting with an astonishing block inside the opening minutes from Frazier Campbell whose diving header, from a matter of yards out and, from Wayne Rooney's clever cross, deflected off Given's head. This was Campbell's first start for United and for all the pace and game running of the 20-year-old even he would admit he is not the answer for his club right now. With Rooney still palpably short of sharpness after recovering from a virus, and appearing sluggish, and frustrated (he was booked again for dissent), United need reinforcements especially as they resorted to throwing on a couple of callow, teenage Brazilians.
There was a fine double save from Given, first denying Rooney, low and one-handed to his right, and then throwing himself before Paul Scholes as he followed up, but then Newcastle, who like United had an appeal for a penalty dismissed, struck. It owed much to a flap by Edwin van der Sar, to effectively concede a corner, and even more to some astonishingly poor marking by Darren Fletcher. He stood rooted as Obafemi Martins rose inside the six-yard area to, unchallenged, head the ball in off Scholes's thigh. The lead lasted less than two minutes, however, with Fletcher immediately redeeming himself as he stole in front of Habib Beye to deftly steer Ryan Giggs's low cross from the left beyond Given.
For Newcastle there was a free header for Martins, after Damien Duff's corner evaded Rio Ferdinand, but the Nigerian headed over. Nemanja Vidic was more unfortunate. He powered on to a corner, with his header thumping into the turf and then up and off the crossbar. It meant that Newcastle had their draw – the first point gained on this ground by them in five visits and four and a half years – which offered deep encouragement for manager Kevin Keegan and the travelling fans chorusing the "Blaydon Races". For Ferguson it only confirmed what he already knew.
Goals: Martins (22) 0-1; Fletcher (24) 1-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick (O'Shea, 25), Scholes, Giggs (Possebon, 63); Rooney, Campbell (R Da Silva, 80). Substitutes not used: Kuszcak (gk), Neville, Evans, Gibson.
Newcastle United (4-4-1-1): Given; Beye, Coloccini, Taylor, N'Zogbia; Milner, Guthrie, Butt, Gutierrez; Duff; Martins. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Enrique, Bassong, Smith Geremi, Edgar, Donaldson.
Referee: M Riley (Leeds).
Booked: Manchester United Campbell, Brown, Rooney.
Man of the match: Given.
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