The first of January ushered in the first of the delicate away assignments that will determine Manchester United's fate in May and ended with Sir Alex Ferguson suffering a deflating climax to a festive season that had enriched his 65th birthday celebrations.
Consumed by the thought of a nine-point gap over a divided Chelsea at the top of the Premiership, his ambitions were limited to a meagre draw against a depleted Newcastle United instead. Rarely can a seven-point lead on New Year's Day have felt so underwhelming.
If United, the Manchester variety that is, are to land a first League title in four seasons, then it is success at such problematic destinations as St James' Park, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Chelsea, Everton and Manchester City that will shape their triumph more than any injury crisis or internal argument at Stamford Bridge. In that respect the first of those eight staging posts suggested a fraught scramble to the finishing line, the two-horse race now slowed by two-all draws as Newcastle defied a 12-man injury list and their home debutant David Edgar denied United the opportunity to tighten their hold on the top.
Ahead through two goals from Paul Scholes, the visitors looked to have survived the spirited response Glenn Roeder had demanded from his limited resources. Yet they lacked the ruthlessness they had shown of late and when Edgar's 25-yard drive deflected off the former England midfielder and nestled into the bottom corner of Edwin van der Sar's goal in the 74th minute, they could have no complaints about the outcome.
"We should have won with the amount of chances we had," Ferguson said. "But Newcastle deserved a point for the spirit and effort put in. They were first to everything."
Magnanimous perhaps, but the hosts were in such poor health that his opposite number had been forced to abandon plans to field Nicky Butt as an emergency defender against his old club when the midfielder reported to St James' with a swollen left ankle.
In his place stepped Edgar, a Canadian left-back, the son of one-time Newcastle player Eddie, and a 19-year-old with only one previous first-team outing to his name. Alongside the equally raw Paul Huntington in defence, his early involvement raised suspicions this would not be the walkover many on Tyneside had feared as he started with a precision tackle on Cristiano Ronaldo, then dribbled his way around Gary Neville near the Newcastle corner flag.
It was his decision to let fly from the angle with 16 minutes remaining, however, that will leave the lasting impression. "His dad was in the crowd today and this is a dream come true for David," Roeder said, "although he would have been on the bench had Nicky been fit."
In the first half, Kieron Dyer, sent clear by a shuddering challenge from Scott Parker that set a standard even the likes of Antoine Sibierski and Obafemi Martins followed obligingly, had drawn the first save of the game out of Van der Sar. Then, in the 33rd minute, James Milner cut in from the left and unleashed a fabulous strike into the top corner that opened his account for the season.
Only now did Manchester United show real urgency and quality in front of goal. Though Shay Given had marked his 400th Newcastle appearance with fine saves from Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney, with Parker also clearing a header by the French striker off the line, there was a lack of conviction about the visiting attack until Saha succumbed to a groin injury and Ferguson reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Rooney the lone forward.
Within four minutes they were level as Scholes found the bottom corner from 18 yards following a slick move outside the Newcastle area. Twenty-five seconds into the second half he struck once more, albeit thanks to a telling deflection off Steven Taylor, and, though Ronaldo and Park added to Ferguson's frustration with late misses, United had sat back and invited Edgar's equaliser by the time it arrived. Chelsea, for all their current turmoil, have been offered a reprieve.
Goals: Milner (33) 1-0; Scholes (40) 1-1; Scholes (46) 1-2; Edgar (74) 2-2.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Solano, Taylor, Huntington, Edgar; Dyer, Emre (Pattison, 87), Parker, Milner; Sibierski, Martins. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), Luque, O'Brien, Carroll.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Fletcher (Carrick, 78), Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Saha (Park, 36). Substitutes not used: Heaton (gk), Heinze, O'Shea.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire)
Booked: Manchester United Scholes, Neville; Newcastle Parker.
Man of the match: Parker.
Attendance: 52,302.Reuse content