Dominant United pay the penalty for wayward finishing
Manchester Utd 1 Newcastle U 1:THE TROUBLE with rules is there are always exceptions that are said to prove them.
Conventional wisdom has it that Manchester United are habitually stronger in the new year, but could this season be the anomaly?
United have never been as good since Cristiano Ronaldo decamped to Spain and they won the title almost by default last season which, by common consent, was a sub-standard year. This time the competition is much stronger, with Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool resurgent, and the evidence suggests United have not improved.
The reason for the champions’ malaise was apparent on Saturday when, for all Newcastle United’s last-ditch gallantry, United should have won by a hatful.
Attention has inevitably focused on the fallacious penalty that brought Alan Pardew’s battlers their point but while it is patently true that Rio Ferdinand did not foul Hatem Ben Arfa, and won the ball cleanly, Alex Ferguson ought to be more concerned by the wasting of seven clear-cut chances at the other end.
Tim Krul, in the Newcastle goal, had the game of his young life, making some outstanding saves, but United should still have won by a convincing margin. Ferguson, predictably, has chosen to dwell on the penalty that wasn’t, calling it an “absolute travesty” and criticising the officials responsible but the fact that his team have been unable to score more than one goal in any of their past six league matches is what is threatening to dethrone them.
In such circumstances, it seems increasingly strange that he continues to ignore Dimitar Berbatov, who has started just one of the 13 league matches played to date. Nobody scored more than the Bulgarian’s 20 league goals last season, and his finishing is hallmarked by the composure that would surely have brought order to Saturday’s pell-mell chaos.
Credit where it is due, and those of us who suspected Newcastle might be about to crack after losing their unbeaten record to Manchester City were confounded by a commendably gutsy performance epitomised by Steven Taylor’s body-on-the-line heroics.
No player in the league has made more defensive blocks than the 25-year-old centre-half, who can have only enhanced his England prospects here.
Collectively, Pardew has worked wonders, winning round the Toon Army who were initially hostile to the appointment of another of Mike Ashley’s “cockney mafia”, by organising a cheap and cheerful team so effectively that it has gone almost unnoticed how the €41 million received from Liverpool for Andy Carroll has not been spent, as promised, on reinforcements.
Newcastle will not qualify for the Champions League, quality is too thinly spread to maintain a place in the top four, but nor are they this season’s Blackpool. Seventh or eighth should not be beyond them.
What of United? Saturday’s visitors were a reminder that traditionally almost no lead is too big for Ferguson’s teams to chase down in the second half of the season. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle were 12 points clear at the top in January 1996, yet trailed in four behind United, who scored eight goals in their last two games.
This time, though, they lack the firepower that was provided by Eric Cantona, Andy Cole and Paul Scholes. Ferguson insists there is nobody out there of the right quality who is available to buy in January, in which case Berbatov, who scored against Benfica last week, has to be the logical alternative.
Alone among all the managers, Ferguson never deigns to talk to the press after Premier League matches. On Saturday he used his programme notes to criticise the press in the north-east, who would have liked to put him straight as to their conduct.
Needless to say, they were denied the opportunity.