Anything the noisy neighbours, and defending champions, from across the city can do, Manchester United can do just as effectively, as Newcastle discovered to their cost, losing a pulsating game which they had led on no fewer than three occasions.
Two seconds remained of the 90 unpredictable and breathtaking minutes when Michael Carrick’s magnificent cross into the Newcastle six-yard area was met by the Mexican forward Javier Hernandez, who slid in to earn United a victory which opened the gap over City to seven points at the top of the Premier League.
That was the final full stop on an unforgettable occasion which may yet have further ramifications in the FA’s disciplinary dock.
In the closing seconds, Antonio Valencia made an appalling late challenge on Newcastle’s Vurnon Anita which went unpunished despite the Newcastle midfielder being stretchered off. But, of far more news value, Alex Ferguson marched onto the field before the second half kicked off and argued furiously with referee Mike Dean, assistant Jake Collin and fourth official Neil Swarbrick over the decision to award Newcastle’s controversial second goal.
“Mike Dean hasn’t the benefit of video replay as I have, but it’s clear,” said Ferguson. “The linesman correctly put his flag up for offside because Cisse was offside and, also, he pulled Jonny Evans’ arm. If that’s not interference, what is? That was the point I was making to Mike Dean. The referee changed the linesman’s mind. The referee says it’s an own goal. If you see it again, the referee can’t see it — that is where his linesman has to come into it.’’
Frustrated by his team’s defending, and the late Valencia foul on Anita, it was no surprise that the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew disagreed. “It was an own goal,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who was offside. It doesn’t matter if you were 20 yards offside if a defender puts it in. I was also a bit upset with that (Valencia) tackle but my main frustration is with the team defensively, we should have done a lot better.”
When the dust had settled, however, the simple fact remained that, despite a defence which looks woeful on most, if not all, occasions, United have a commanding lead at the top of the table despite City’s own penchant for last-second heroics, the most recent of which saw them snatch all three points with a late winner against lowly Reading on Saturday.
“The statement was the performance of the team, never mind where we are in the league at the moment,” added Ferguson. “That was a championship performance tonight, absolutely brilliant they were.”
There had been little sign of the drama to follow for much of the opening hour in which United, without the injured Wayne Rooney or the ill Danny Welbeck, struggled to create a meaningful chance save for a first equaliser which was scarcely deserved.
After only four minutes, David de Gea made a mess of handling Demba Ba’s long shot, simply pushing the ball into the path of James Perch who netted the rebound. United were fortunate to level after 25 minutes when a Robin van Persie free-kick was helped into the area by Ryan Giggs and, after Tim Krul had saved well from Hernandez, defender Jonny Evans was on hand to convert.
Evans was instrumental three minutes later, however, when Newcastle led for a second time in a manner which so infuriated Ferguson.
Danny Simpson’s shot struck Evans and flew past de Gea although linesman Collin initially flagged for offside, to the fury of the Newcastle players and bench. Dean consulted his assistant, who presumably believed the final touch had been made by an offside Papiss Cisse, before overruling the flag and allowing it to stand.
Sylvain Marveaux hit the crossbar with a magnificent free-kick before half-time.
Ferguson then began his demonstration against the officials, and United were still struggling up the gears when Patrice Evra latched onto Perch’s clearance and levelled with a 20-yard shot after 58 minutes.
It was remarkable stuff. Ten minutes later, Newcastle led for the third, and final, time as former United winger Gabriel Obertan was allowed to sprint down the left and pick out Cisse with a drag-back which the forward struck home clinically.
But moments later, in the 70th minute, van Persie saw his 18-yard shot, from a Valencia cross, well saved by Krul and, after a neat touch by Carrick, was presented with a second chance which he dispatched in trademark fashion.
It was the start of a concluding 20 minutes from which you dare not turn your eye. Amidst the mayhem, United might have had four more, and a penalty after Hernandez’s shot hit Fabricio Coloccini’s arm, and Newcastle substitute Samuel Ameobi struck the Manchester post with a low shot.
Ferguson revealed afterwards that Rooney will be absent for “two to three weeks” with a knee ligament injury but, on this stunning afternoon, not even that news could sour the manager’s mood.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): De Gea 4; Smalling 6, Ferdinand 5, Evans 5, Evra 6; Valencia 6, Carrick 6, Scholes 6 (Cleverley 69, 6), Giggs 6; van Persie 7, Hernandez 8.
Newcastle (4-4-1-1): Krul 6; Simpson 7, Coloccini 8, Williamson 6, Santon 6; Perch 7, Anita 7, Bigirimana 6 (Obertan 64, 7), Marveaux 6; Cisse 8 (Sammy Ameobi 79, 7); Ba 9 (Shola Ameobi 71, 7).
Referee: M Dean 5.
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