Newcastle United blunt Manchester United's attack to earn three crucial points in fight against relegation

Newcastle United 1 Manchester United 0: Matt Ritchie's first goal of the season was enough for secure the win

Jonathan Liew
St James' Park
Sunday 11 February 2018 17:00
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Matt Ritchie scored his first goal of the season
Matt Ritchie scored his first goal of the season

It shouldn’t have felt like a huge surprise, of course, given the size of these two clubs. All the same, it did: Newcastle United’s victory came like a shot in the dark, a bolt from the blue that lifted them clean out of the relegation zone, and in the process put one last bullet in what remained of the festering carcass some were still calling the title race.

A poacher’s finish by Matt Ritchie with 25 minutes remaining sealed three vital points for Rafa Benitez’s team, their first win over Manchester United since their golden season of 2011-12, when Alan Pardew could seemingly do no wrong and Sir Alex Ferguson was in the opposite dugout. St James’s Park shook and heaved that day, and as the whistle blew for full-time it shook and heaved once more.

The win lifts them six places in this strange, strange league, almost into the safety of mid-table, were mid-table able to provide any safety whatsoever. They were good value for it, too: for all United’s late pressure, Newcastle defended brilliantly, Florian Lejeune marginally the pick of an outstanding back five. Martin Dubravka enjoyed a sparkling debut in goal after signing on loan from Sparta Prague.

At the other end, Newcastle will point to a potential penalty that Dwight Gayle might have won shortly before half-time when Chris Smalling clipped him on the very corner of the box. Having spoken of their need to manage games better, however, Benitez will take particular pleasure from the maturity his side showed late on, in the face of the United tide.

United, for their part, were not awful: certainly not as awful as they were against, say, Tottenham last week. They controlled large stretches, had a number of shots cleared off the line, ultimately created enough chances to feel they might at least shared the points. But for all the talent on the pitch, you would struggle to say they ever managed to truly assert themselves on the game, and even before conceding a soft goal, looked a little shapeless. This is a team whose constituent parts are not yet in sync, a mere 27 games into the season.

Martial missed a hatful of chances

And loath as we should be to reduce this game to a tale of one prodigal superstar, United’s failure to assert themselves in midfield goes a long way to explaining why they ultimately lost the game. Paul Pogba was restored to the side, in a midfield two alongside Nemanja Matic, and yet was unceremoniously hauled off just after Newcastle’s goal, a move which says a good deal about how Jose Mourinho sees him: more doorstop than door-opener.

Pogba was poor, admittedly, but was given heartbreakingly little to work with. United’s propensity to build attacks up the flanks rather than through the centre occasionally leaves him isolated, in the centre and yet utterly peripheral. It was left to Romelu Lukaku, instead, to perform much of the link play and build-up that Pogba tended to specialise in at Juventus.

Sanchez was outnumbered in attack

Anthony Martial, meanwhile, still looks bereft in the right wing position: like a child on his perhaps his third or fourth day of school, in that he has worked out where he has to go, but still has no idea why. Even his finishing seems to have deserted him: 10 minutes before half-time, he was put clean through by Matic’s sublime through ball, and saw his shot saved by Dubravka.

Neither side created very much in the first half, but United did emerge from the break with more intensity, more directness. Alexis Sanchez rounded the keeper, and with the goal gaping, inexplicably waited a split second to regain his balance. Time enough for Lejeune to fling his legs in front of the shot.

But the key moment of the game derived from the most comical of circumstances. Smalling, defying his manager’s orders and very possibly his own muscle memory, tried to dribble the ball out of defence and was booked for diving. From the resulting free-kick by Jonjo Shelvey, Lejeune won the header, Gayle did brilliantly do hold off Smalling and flick the ball on to Ritchie, and the Scotland international - completely unmarked 12 yards out - slammed the ball low and left-footed past De Gea.

Ritchie finished calmly to snatch the win

Mourinho brought on Juan Mata and Michael Carrick for Pogba and Jesse Lingard, and for a while they threatened again. The tireless Ashley Young had a shot beaten away. Martial, enjoying the sort of afternoon that drives lesser men to drink, had successive shots blocked on the line. But as the minutes leaked away, Newcastle did enough, spurred on by a crowd that cheered every defensive header, every clearance, like a goal.

When, after 94 minutes and 10 seconds, a deflected shot by Antonio Valencia was scooped up by Dubravka, a save followed in short order by the final whistle, the ground erupted. This is a club and a stadium that has been cruelly starved of joy over recent years, and yet on afternoons like this you remember why it is one of English football’s great atmosphere. Under a blue, cloudless sky, and with everything to play for, St James’s Park finally felt alive again.

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