Scholes double puts United in sight of summit

Manchester United 3 Newcastle United 1
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The Independent Online

If it was said that Sir Alex Ferguson was reconsidering his decision to retire because he could not face the prospect of walking away from Old Trafford a loser, a sixth successive victory in his 600th league game as manager of Manchester United would have soothed his anxieties.

Having heard Ferguson write off his own team's chances of a fourth successive championship less than a month ago, United now lie ominously in second place, having overhauled Liverpool's 11-point lead with almost ridiculous ease. Traditionally, the new year signals Manchester United's best run of the season and last night marked the first occasion in which they have beaten one of the top six.

"We have cut out the daft goals, had a settled back four and got our concentration levels back up," their captain, Roy Keane, offered by way of explanation. "We are always capable of creating chances and we feel the strikers will always score." They will if they play Newcastle every week. Although they have regained something of the potency they enjoyed under Kevin Keegan, their manager Bobby Robson has been unable to rectify their perennial weaknesses at the back. Ruud van Nistelrooy, a man whose talents were nurtured by Robson at PSV Eindhoven, and Paul Scholes, twice, ruthlessly exploited the fault lines in their back four.

Newcastle had not won a league match here since 1972, when the remnants of the squad that Sir Matt Busby had turned into the champions of Europe were decaying into a relegation team. Perhaps Robson was right to maintain a sense of perspective when he remarked: "All we have done is lose three points at Old Trafford, which is something we normally do."

Nevertheless, the defiance Newcastle showed until the end demonstrated how far up the grand old man of English football has dragged his boyhood team. In August 1999 a side ruined by the financial profligacy of Keegan's successors were routed by Andy Cole, who scored four times and professed himself "gutted" at his former club's disarray. Robson soon took over.

The gap between the sides was closed before a ball was kicked when Ryan Giggs, who had combined so powerfully with Van Nistelrooy at Fulham on Sunday, withdrew with a recurrence of his hamstring problems. David Beckham was also demoted to the bench, although this has happened so regularly it no longer counts as news.

The same might be said of Van Nistelrooy's scoring. He has now found the net in each of Manchester United's last six matches, a sequence that has coincided perfectly with their dramatic upswing in form. "He has talent plus personality; he is a gem of a boy. He is also very hungry," said Robson, who confessed he had recommended to Ferguson's brother, Martin, that United should buy the striker when they found themselves together on a plane from Eindhoven.

He was, however, furious with the flimsiness of Newcastle's defensive screen which allowed the Dutchman to open the scoring. Both Nikos Dabizas and Sylvain Distin were notable by their absence as Van Nistelrooy met at point-blank range a cross provided by a marvellous overlapping run from Mickaël Silvestre for his 20th goal of the season.

At half-time, Robson believed his side was capable of mounting a recovery. He had, after all, just seen Nolberto Solano have what appeared a legitimate header ruled out for a push on Silvestre but, just five minutes after the restart, his tactics were reduced to ashes by more feeble defending. A simple ball from Silvestre was not cut out and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer flicked it into Scholes' path with fatal results.

Robson's analysis that Newcastle were "outpassed not outclassed" was probably correct. Before kick-off Ferguson would have warned his back four of the speed of Craig Bellamy but in the event United dealt with him far more comfortably than they had in the 4-3 defeat at St James' Park in September.

Nevertheless, had Phil Neville not cleared Gary Speed's volley off the line when the match was some eight minutes old, the night might have had a different ending. Had Alan Shearer, rather than Distin, been at the far post to meet Robbie Elliott's cross ­ a form of attack that caused United more problems than Bellamy's pace ­ Newcastle might have gone into the interval level.

In the 69th minute, Shearer duly celebrated his 200th game for Newcastle with his first league goal at Old Trafford, although by then his team were three down, which would have accounted for the muted way he raised his arm in celebration. It was a trademark Shearer goal; a perfect header to greet Elliott's cross but for Newcastle it was all rather late.

Some five minutes before, the Magpies' eggshell defence had again given way with nobody prepared to challenge Keane as he advanced on goal from the right, and there was not the hint of a tackle as Scholes calmly rolled the ball home at the far post.

The match confirmed that Manchester United will be around in May to decide the destination of a Premiership title they have come to regard as their own. After successive defeats by Chelsea and now United, the same probably cannot be said of Newcastle, although the way they continued to press until the end ensured it would be defeat with honour.

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Barthez 6; P Neville 7, G Neville 6, Blanc 6, Silvestre 7; Veron 5, Keane 6, Butt 5, Scholes 8; Solskjaer 7 (Beckham, 84), Van Nistelrooy 7 (Yorke 5, 67). Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), O'Shea, Irwin.

Newcastle United: (4-4-2) Given 6; Hughes 5, Distin 4, Dabizas 3, Elliott 6; Solano 6 (Bernard, 81), Lee 6, Speed 7, Dyer 6; Bellamy 5 (Ameobi, 81), Shearer 7. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), O'Brien, Lua Lua.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough) 7.

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