Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 1
An apparent first-half spitting contest between Papiss Cissé and Jonny Evans provided some unwanted controversy on a night when Ashley Young's late winner kept Manchester United's hopes of Champions League qualification very much alive.
Despite ceding the majority of possession to Louis van Gaal’s side it was slightly harsh on a Newcastle United side who might have had an early penalty before Emmanuel Rivière and Cissé spurned highly inviting chances.
Games can hinge on the sort of decision made by Anthony Taylor in the 10th minute. When Rivière collected Gabriel Obertan's pass and sashayed beyond Daley Blind, Chris Smalling sensed danger. Rivière duly drew the United centre half into a rash, clumsy challenge which looked a clearcut penalty but happily for Van Gaal, Taylor saw things differently.
That cameo apart United started strongly. If at times they let themselves down with careless concessions of possession, John Carver knew his side had been reprieved when, with his back to goal, Wayne Rooney controlled Young's brilliant ball – or was it simply a heavy first touch which appeared deceptively good? – on his chest, swivelled and dinked a shot wide. With the advancing Tim Krul beaten, Rooney knew he really should have scored. Carver certainly had cause to castigate a Newcastle defence caught square before appealing, forlornly, for an offside that never was.
That move had been initiated by an elegant delivery from Ángel Di María. The worrying news for Newcastle was that after the slowest of slow burn beginnings, Di María gradually started delighting in frequently twisting them out of shape.
Not that United's footwork could always quite match the ambition of their vision. Significantly half-time was beckoning when Krul reacted smartly to divert a header from Marouane Fellaini following the Belgian's connection with Antonio Valencia's fine cross. It represented the evening's first on target effort.
By now Fabricio Coloccini and friends were finding Fellaini an awful nuisance but Newcastle's odd flashes of formidable counter-attacking pace dictated that Van Gaal's players had no cause for complacency.
Unfortunately the tone had been lowered by an altercation involving Cissé and Evans. After both players tussled with each other, mutually kicking out, television replays seem to suggest Newcastle’s striker was suggesting Evans had spat in his eye but other images showing the United centre half flinching indicated both parties might have been guilty. While the stills were not exactly conclusive the potential for a depressing post match controversy could not be discounted.
Should Taylor have sent one or both of them off?
The debate as to whether Cissé had retaliated and whether retrospective Football Association bans could come into play was still raging as the second half got under way and a brilliant save from David de Gea denied Rivière what would have been his first Premier League goal.
When Coloccini’s diagonal, downward header fell kindly for the Frenchman in the area, Rivière seemed certain to score but De Gea spread himself, extended a hand and somehow managed to divert the ball for a corner.
Not to be outdone Krul swiftly, and incredibly, managed to upstage his Manchester United counterpart courtesy of a stunning double save which saw him show off imperious reflexes to prevent first Fellaini and then Young scoring from close range.
With the game’s quality improving almost by the minute, Rooney finally beat Krul only to be rightly – if narrowly – ruled offside.
The biggest cheer of the night followed shortly afterwards but it did not greet a goal. Instead St James’ Park finally found its voice to welcome Jonás Gutiérrez back into a Newcastle side for the first time since his diagnosis with testicular cancer 17 months ago.
Sadly his 64th-minute replacement of Ryan Taylor was tinged with sadness. Taylor, operating at left-back, recently returned after suffering two ruptured cruciate ligaments in rapid succession but his knee appeared to fail him again here and there were tears in his eyes as he embraced Gutiérrez on the touchline.
Hugged by his friend Coloccini, Gutiérrez was handed the captain's armband and after collecting a swift booking for fouling Adnan Januzaj – on for Di Maria – helped Carver's defence continue frustrating Van Gaal.
It could have been worse for the visitors. Spotting Ander Herrera lingering in possession, Ayoze Pérez, on for Rivière, dispossessed the midfielder before playing in Cissé. A goal seemed inevitable but instead he dragged his shot embarrassingly wide.
At the other end, Rooney out-jumped Gutiérrez but Krul proved equal to his header. The Dutch goalkeeper was having a wonderful game but it all went wrong right at the death when Mehdi Abeid’s unwise backpass played Krul into trouble. Seemingly startled, Krul kicked the ball straight to Young who needed no invitation to shoot into the unguarded net.