Better late than never for United.
Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 1
In the build up to this match, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal described the battle to finish in the top four and gain a Champions League place as a ‘Rat Race’. I would rather call it a ‘Cat Fight’ as there are five teams fighting over the milk but only two of them will get the cream.
With only 10 matches to go following this round of weeknight matches only United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton have a realistic chance of grabbing the last two prestigious places at the top of the European table. Which teams will end up eating with the elite remains to be seen but a failure to qualify would be seen as a disaster.
United traveled to St James’ Park knowing only a win would suffice as the other teams around them were starting to pick up momentum and points.
The only absentees were Robin van Persie and Luke Shaw but it still meant the manager had the advantage of picking from a strong squad of players and this was his starting XI: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Evans, Rojo, Blind, Herrera, Di Maria, Fellaini, Young & Rooney. Subs: Lindegaard, Jones, McNair, Carrick, Mata, Januzaj & Falcao.
Van Gaal made only one change to the side that had started against Sunderland at the weekend and that meant Fellaini was in and Falcao demoted to the bench. Angel Di Maria kept his place even though he has been out of sorts in recent displays and Juan Mata was once again named as a substitute.
Within a minute of the start the Reds broke forward through captain Rooney and with three against two he played the ball through to the speedy Di Maria but his first touch let him down and the move quickly broke down. A good start from United but I wonder if a more confident Di Maria wouldn’t have wasted such a good opportunity in front of goal.
After a quality display against Sunderland Ashley Young took his time finding his feet on the left and gave the ball away a couple of times in the early stages of the match.
Sunderland won the first corner after five minutes when Di Maria lost the ball in attack far too easily this was quickly followed by another wayward cross-field pass from the Argentinian which almost set Newcastle on their way but they wasted their chance.
The home side had a good shout for a penalty after a coming together between Smalling and Riviere but referee Taylor waved play on. A big let off for Smalling who would have been in serious trouble if the decision had gone against him.
In the opening fifteen minutes, former United player Obertan was seeing plenty of the ball, probably far more of it than he saw when he was at Old Trafford.
In the 14th minute, Herrera sliced an effort wide after Rooney had held the ball up well in the penalty area. At this point in the match, United were pressing and a through ball over the top from Daley Blind almost found Rooney on the end of it but keeper Krul managed to get to there first.
Talking of Blind I’ve been impressed with his work rate this season and even though he was guilty of some early errors you can’t fault his willingness to get stuck in.
United’s first corner didn’t come until the 21st minute and was taken by Young from the right which Fellaini rose high to get to but couldn’t achieve any direction or power on it.
Shortly after there was some good combination play on the right wing between Di Maria and Valencia to get the ball across but it was too high even for Fellaini.
Rooney had a great chance to put United ahead as the Magpie defence stood still waiting for an offside flag which didn’t come and the forward collected the ball from Young’s touch, span and just put his effort out for a goal kick. A great chance missed but at least the Reds were making the effort.
On the half hour after a mistake by Newcastle Di Maria nicked the ball of the left back and then played it into Rooney who couldn’t quite get it under control before Krul gathered. Another chance went begging and it looked like being one of those nights.
In the first 30 minutes United were totally in control and Rooney and Di Maria were the liveliest players on the pitch and their efforts had been unfortunate not to have earned a goal.
In all honesty, the home side were rather dull and lacked any ambition or ideas which made it easier for United. They did manage a shot in the 35th minute which forward Cisse blasted well wide of David de Gea’s goal.
Five minutes before half-time Young whipped over one of his trademark right-footed crosses which Di Maria sent back over from the right but no-one was there to get on the end of it.
Then Johnny Evans and Cisses had a spat, literally, in the center circle which they continued for the next few minutes, on closer inspection they both had a kick at each other after the ball had gone and were both fortunate not to receive yellow cards or worse after they were seen exchanging bodily fluids.
A great cross from Valencia in the 43rd minute saw Fellaini rise the highest to power a header goal-wards which Krul palmed out into the box where Herrera was waiting to pounce, but the ball sailed over his head.
With a minute of normal time left de Gea got a hand to the ball as Riviere bore down on his goal. In fairness, the striker did start to tumble to the ground as de Gea approached but that takes nothing away from the keepers’ bravery diving at the feet of a couple of players. Another area of de Gea’s game that he has vastly improved on.
Half-time and all square at 0-0. United had played better than in recent matches and had managed a total of five shots but due to a combination of poor finishing and the keeper Krul they had failed to capitalise on their superiority. They had also survived a strong penalty claim from Newcastle.
No changes were made by van Gaal at the beginning of the second half as United started brightly and after two minutes Marcos Rojo tried his luck from distance only to see his effort just go over the bar.
On 49 minutes Newcastle created their best chance as a ball over the top beat the offside trap but de Gea came to United’s rescue yet again as he spread himself to save a header from Riviere at the far post. This was followed by a corner that was cleared from the danger area by Smalling. Not for the first time this season United were living dangerously and were saved by the outstanding de Gea.
Then by far United’s best chance of the game came at the other end when two efforts were missed by the Reds in the same move. First Fellaini chested down and had his volley saved then Young failed to score from the rebound.
Rooney did manage to put the ball in the net in the 56th minute this time he was adjudged to be offside but on closer inspection it was a very close call.
Chance after chance came and went and it seemed all United needed was someone with a calm head to convert one of them.
On 58 minutes, Adnan Januzaj joined the action in place of a very unhappy Di Maria who could easily be seen mouthing his displeasure under his breath. To be fair, he had played well, certainly better than against Sunderland.
United received their first caution in the 59th minute when Rojo was booked for upending Obertan.
After an hours play, it was proving to be a frustrating evening for United as too many attacks came to a halt for offside decisions or all they couldn’t convert possession into clear-cut chances.
Januzaj tried to stretch his legs down the right but was scythed down by Gutierrez who earned himself a yellow card.
67 minutes into the match and Cisse squandered another great chance for Newcastle as they counter attacked, but he pulled his effort well wide when he should have done a lot better. United let the home side create too many chances and needed to re-stamp their authority on the game and get the goal which would keep the noisy natives quiet and surely win the match.
After 74 minutes, Rooney did well to get up above the defenders to meet another cross by Ashley Young that almost deceived Krul but he managed to scramble it clear. That was a decent effort by Rooney who was looking like the only United player able to break the deadlock.
Jonny Evans tried to bring some surprise into the attack by showing some initiative and rushed forward with the ball unchallenged right up to the opposition box, but nothing came from his hard work. At least he tried I suppose.
Januzaj didn’t create many chances from the right and I began to wonder if Di Maria was right to moan about his earlier substitution.
In the 80th minute van Gaal brought on Mata for Fellaini who had been industrious and had a couple of chances but a change in United’s tactics was needed plus a fresh pair of legs for the last ten minutes.
Valencia became the second United player to be booked after being played into trouble by Januzaj.
United’s last throw of the dice came with less than two minutes on the clock when Michael Carrick made a welcome return after injury by replacing Rojo.
Then in the last minute the winner came to send United fans all over the world into a frenzy. After great work from Rooney who chased a lost cause in the penalty area to cause confusion in the home defence, which in turn made Krul miskick the ball straight into the path of Ashley Young who calmly slotted the ball over the line to the obvious relieve of van Gaal who sprang out of his seat and punched the air in delight.
There in Young we at last saw the steady head needed to win the match. That was Ashley Young’s first goal since his effort against Cardiff City in January 2014 and didn’t he choose the right time to come up with the winner and he deserves the accolades as he has been exceptional this season.
Of course, United kept us on the edge of our seats by almost conceding an equaliser from the restart but that man de Gea was there again to save United with a great stop at his near post.
Even though Young scored the winner there is no doubt who won the match with his pressing of the defence in the build-up to the goal, captain Rooney. His persistence in chasing the ball created the winning goal out of absolutely nothing. It was a good lesson in never giving up a lost cause especially when you consider he didn’t even touch the ball he just kept biting away at the defenders until they made the all important error.
Keeper David de Gea proved yet again that he has been the most outstanding player this season and the hope that his new contract will be signed very soon is as high as ever.
In the end it was a massive result for United who deserved the points although Newcastle had their chances the only worry was that it would end all square but thankfully that wasn’t the case and United came away with the three very valuable points after other teams around them had also all won.
Next week, it’s the return of the FA Cup and the much-anticipated match against Arsenal at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals. In the past, this tie has produced some humdingers over the years and I expect the same type of clash next Monday. However, being the cautious type I will take a drab 1-0 win for United and safe passage into the semi’s, but as you and I know that is just not going to happen with United, so be ready for a clash that will have our bum’s twitching and nerves jangling right until the end.
Thanks again for reading.