Cole and company burn off Newcastle
As partnerships go it is far from obvious, but in Andy Cole and Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United yesterday had a pairing of enormous and decisive effectiveness. Cole, on his second return to the stadium where he made his name, scored a 66th-minute header of magnificent simplicity to settle 90 minutes of enthralling complexity, yet for all its beauty it would have been rendered meaningless had not Schmeichel made two saves of astonishing quality, one in the first half from John Barnes, the other 10 minutes from the end from Stuart Pearce.
Thus Alex Ferguson's side re-established their four-point lead over Blackburn Rovers - and five over Chelsea - but Newcastle United's title attempt now borders on fantasy - 150 to 1, according to the bookmakers last night. For the seventh time this season Newcastle have played a team above them and for the seventh time they have failed to win; in fact, they have taken only three points from the possible 21.
Nevertheless, it was a much-improved display from Kenny Dalglish's men, though he was less effusive about it afterwards than the visiting manager, who said: "I think we were very lucky today. We played better last year when we lost 5-0.
"We continually gave the ball away and Newcastle were very unfortunate. They gave a maximum performance but we've scored a great goal, a great header from a great cross."
Ferguson identified Schmeichel and Gary Pallister as his two key players, but ultimately it was Cole's booming confidence which decided matters. He is, however, a hate figure on Tyneside now and while he was being shown a yellow card in injury-time a fan emerged from the Gallowgate End and only Steve Watson's bulk prevented Cole from being thumped.
Dalglish chose to pick on David Beckham rather than the pitch invader, accusing Beckham of overreacting in getting Alessandro Pistone booked. Otherwise, though, Dalglish was considerably happier than after the midweek debacle against Derby County, but said: "We can't just turn it on against Man United. We've got to do it every game."
After that sensationally bad effort against Derby on Wednesday, a result of much greater relevance yesterday than the 5-0 win last season, Dalglish dropped two of his disappointing attacking imports, Temur Ketsbaia and Jon Dahl Tomasson, and replaced them with defenders, Darren Peacock and John Beresford.
This brought Newcastle's complement of recognised defenders to six, although three of them, Watson, Beresford and Pistone, were effective midfielders when Newcastle were in possession.
For most of the opening hour, which Newcastle shaded, all three were prominent among the Manchester red blanket thrown across St James's Park. With John Barnes knitting together every Newcastle thrust with deft flicks and headers, and Faustino Asprilla at last beginning to resemble his old self, Beresford had two notable early chances.
Schmeichel did well to push the second of them to safety but only after he had fumbled a Keith Gillespie shot. But when it really mattered, in the 25th minute, Schmeichel was up to his usual high standard, diving backwards acrobatically to push away Barnes's imposing header.
In spite of that and other Newcastle efforts, the champions always had an air of defensive composure. And with Paul Scholes, back from suspension to replace Ole Solskjaer, and Nicky Butt in midfield, constantly tidying, their breakaways were swift and dangerous.
Beckham and Ryan Giggs both had useful strikes but their side's best first-half moment came just as half-time beckoned. Collecting a slick pass from Giggs, Cole danced away from Pearce but from six yards hit the advancing Shaka Hislop with a left-foot drive. It was, though, the signal that the Cole-man was starting to glow.
Cole's goal six minutes later had unusual origins - a Newcastle free-kick deep in the visitors' half. Pearce took it, driving it low, but the ball was cleared quickly to Giggs. He slipped it to Phil Neville and with Newcastle forward in numbers he was able to stride beyond the half-way line and slide the ball cross-field to Scholes, who then relayed it to Beckham on the right wing.
Unchallenged, Beckham took his time and picked out the forehead of Cole - again unmarked although he was by now being surrounded by black-and-white shirts - and he buried a powerful, hugely-impressive downward header into Hislop's bottom corner. Hislop did not move.
Newcastle's goalkeeper did move soon afterwards, stopping Giggs as he slid in. Then, with Newcastle's heart punctured, Scholes sent a relatively simple opportunity over.
Newcastle recovered, but Asprilla lifted a last-minute lob too high over Schmeichel - and, of course, the United goalkeeper also denied Pearce. On the final whistle Cole ran 60 yards to embrace his new partner.
Newcastle: Hislop, Watson, Beresford (Ketsbaia 75), Peacock, Pearce, Pistone, Albert (Barton 33), Batty, Barnes, Gillespie, Asprilla. Subs Not Used: Given, Rush, Tomasson. Booked: Gillespie, Pistone, Batty, Peacock.
Manchester Utd: Schmeichel, G Neville, Johnsen, P Neville, Pallister, Beckham, Butt, Giggs, Scholes (Solskjaer 72), Cole, Sheringham (McClair 83). Subs Not Used: Berg, Pilkington, Curtis. Booked: Butt, P Neville, Cole. Goal: Cole 66. Att: 36,767.
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).