Manchester United's lack of aura laid bare in defeat by positive Newcastle

Rafa Benitez showed Manchester City great respect in December with a defensive setup, but Newcastle showed far more ambition against United

Martin Hardy
St James' Park
@mhardysport
Sunday 11 February 2018 16:58
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Manchester United lacked threat even with Alexis Sanchez in their ranks
Manchester United lacked threat even with Alexis Sanchez in their ranks

There was a moment after the Manchester derby at Old Trafford earlier this season when an apoplectic home supporter took over a television interview.

The fan, who looked remarkably like Ricky Hatton, was raging at the lack of intent from his side. "They’ve got a centre-midfielder playing at left-back and we didn’t f****** attack him! We’re f****** Man United!" he screamed.

Except Man United are no longer Man United, not under Jose Mourinho.

When Newcastle faced Manchester City in December at St James’ Park, Jonjo Shelvey took the kick-off and belted the ball straight into the hands of Ederson. Newcastle retreated into their own half and pretty much stayed there until 15 minutes remained. That they almost grabbed an equaliser is not the point here. The tactics from Rafa Benitez were about respect and damage limitation.

The ball went back to Shelvey for the visit of Manchester United, and he took a touch, had a look around him, ignored the wide ball to his right and kept possession.

By the third minute the former Liverpool midfielder had cracked a rising drive that David de Gea did well to stop to his right with a flying save.

By the time Craig Pawson blew for half-time, there had been eight shots from the home side. Four of them had come in the first eight minutes. De Gea did well to stop a long range effort from Kenedy, Newcastle should have had a penalty when Chris Smalling fouled Dwight Gayle on the very corner of the Manchester United penalty area. Newcastle attacked. Mourinho’s side, assembled at a cost of around £350m, simply evoke no fear.

Newcastle had beaten Manchester United once in the previous 10 games between the two teams at St James’ Park. The visitors are on the cusp of a battle for the top four, six points above the unpredictable Chelsea. None of that showed.

Matt Ritchie, left, spins away in celebration (Getty Images)

There was an excellent save from the debutant Martin Dubravka in the first half, when he denied Anthony Martial in a one-on-one with the studs of his left boot. There were two blocks from Dwight Gayle in his own penalty area in the second half, a saving tackle from Florian Lejeune when Alexis Sanchez looked set to score and there was some heroic defending from those in black and white. Tyneside felt united for 90 minutes. Their team was roared to a victory that could keep them in the Premier League.

For that, there was a moment of quality to follow a moment of stupidity. Smalling produced such a theatrical fall when faced with a potential foul from a Shelvey challenge that Pawson gave a free-kick against the defender (and also booked him for diving).

Shelvey hoisted a free-kick from inside the Manchester United half that was met by the head of Lejeune, deep in the visitors’ penalty area. The header reached Gayle and the forward cleverly flicked the ball into the path of Matt Ritchie, who crashed his shot past De Gea.

St James’ Park erupted. The enormity of that goal felt huge immediately, but that Manchester United had been the architects of it, and therefore their own downfall, was undeniable.

This was the second clean sheet Newcastle have kept on home soil in four months. It was their first victory at St James' Park since October 21. It is difficult to quantify the aura of a football club, but City now have what Manchester United have lost. The belief in those and black and white, from start to finish, told you that.

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