There are some games when Manchester United cram a lifetime into 90 minutes – triumph, despair, salvation, anger, joy – and you leave Old Trafford wondering if you will ever see anything like it again.
Yesterday was one of those days, a brilliant, tumultuous game full of glory and blunder on both sides, complete with its heroes and mistakes and a 70-year-old man on the touchline flapping his arms about and berating the match officials. Sir Alex Ferguson could only see the strengths in his team after Javier Hernandez scored the winning goal with two seconds of the 90 minutes remaining, but there was more to this performance than just that.
Three times, the home side came from behind to draw level with a spirited, inventive Newcastle. It was a battle between Manchester United’s remarkable attacking strength and character and their obvious flaws at the back. Whether they will conquer those demons every week remains to be seen, but the seven-point gap at the top of the league that separates them from their stumbling neighbours Manchester City is hard to argue with.
Problems at Manchester United? Not when they look at City and not when the place is rocking to a classic comeback from the home team. But that was not how they were feeling at a goal down, or 2-1 down, or 3-2 down, as their defence splintered time and again.
There was no questioning the commitment of Ferguson’s side, however, although when their manager described his side as enjoying “Championship form” it raised an eyebrow. Yes, when you consider their lead at the top of the Premier League. Not when you look at the haphazard nature of their defending. They have conceded 28 goals already this season, only five fewer than they did for the entirety of last season.
Even so, the rest of the Premier League simply cannot keep pace with them, and this was a Manchester United team without Wayne Rooney among others, who will miss the next “two to three weeks” with a knee injury sustained in training yesterday, according to his manager.
It was an extraordinary game, notable for many things including Ferguson pursuing the referee Mike Dean onto the pitch as the teams came out for the second half to complain about Newcastle’s second goal. Ferguson then turned his attention to the linesman Jake Collin who had initially flagged to disallow Jonny Evans’s own goal, Newcastle’s second, and then changed his mind after a touchline conference with Dean.
Evans had deflected Danny Simpson’s cross from the right past David De Gea in the same passage of play in which Papiss Cissé had strayed offside. The Newcastle striker did not touch the ball on its way in but Ferguson’s argument was that Cissé (he identified him as Demba Ba in post-match interviews) had been interfering with play, including a pull on Evans’ arm. “If that’s not interference,” he asked, “then what is?”
He had a point, but when he pursues referees in the way that he did yesterday, Ferguson looks like a bully and it does nothing to dispel the sense that, at Old Trafford in particular, he puts officials in an impossible position.
Any other game, and this public Ferguson rage might have eclipsed everything else but the story changed with every passing minute. The home team, without Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones, as well as Rooney, had fallen behind in the fourth minute when De Gea had pushed Ba’s shot straight to the feet of James Perch for his first goal for the club.
Without Yohan Cabaye, Jonas Gutierrez and the suspended Cheick Tioté, this was a Newcastle team missing many of the players who had a part in January victory over United. They were dangerous in attack but in defence they let the home side back in too easily, not least when Evans forced in an equaliser after Tim Krul had stopped Hernandez’s shot on 25 minutes.
Then came the disputed second goal for Newcastle who went in at half-time in the lead. In the very final stages of the game manager Alan Pardew lost Vurnon Anita to a dreadful foul by Antonio Valencia, unpunished, after the Dutch midfielder had played exceptionally well, but he was not the only one.
Manchester United came back before the hour, when Patrice Evra scored their second following Perch’s weak clearing header. On 68 minutes, the substitute Gabriel Obertan swept down the left and crossed for Cissé to score the third. “A killer goal,” Ferguson said later.
Robin van Persie scored United’s third equaliser with his second attempt, nicely teed up for him by Michael Carrick, after Krul had saved the first. It was Carrick’s ball from the right that Hernandez steered in for the winner although not before Sammy Ameobi, another substitute, had hit the post with five minutes left.
Valencia’s foul on Anita was dreadful. Simpson’s late boot on Evans was not in the same category but there were fouls on both sides. By the end, Manchester United had turned the screw on Newcastle. Ferguson was far enough down the touchline to be taking Chris Smalling’s throw-ins and the pressure was starting to tell.
There was no guarantee the home side would break through but in those kind of circumstances it takes a certain kind of team to hold out. Both defences had looked brittle and it was not a surprise when Newcastle finally gave in. On the touchline Ferguson jumped into an embrace with his assistant Mike Phelan. He had seen the best of his team but also the worst. The question is: with a seven-point lead, what happens to the rest if United start defending properly?