Hernandez claims spoils in thriller


Manchester United 4 Newcastle United 3:Bonkers. Brilliant. If anyone wants to know why the Premier League is one of the most exciting in the world, this is it. Subtlety? Forget it. Technique? Lacking. Defences? Woeful. Excitement? Off the scale. Twenty-four hours after Santa did his rounds, Manchester United and Newcastle served up a present few would have equalled from under their trees.

Seven goals. Controversy. The Ferguson hairdryer switched onto full blast And in the final minute, Javier Hernandez netted his 10th goal of the season to send Manchester United seven points clear at the top of the table.

Three times Newcastle led in the search for their first Old Trafford win since 1972. Three times they were pegged back. Their pain at defeat and a serious looking injury to Vurnon Anita the only sad aspects of a staggering day that showed off all that is so alluring about English football.

After stumbling at Swansea, the last thing Alex Ferguson wanted was a nosedive against Newcastle. Yet the worries began when the teams were announced.

With Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young injured and Danny Welbeck out through illness, Ferguson was short of attacking options beyond Hernandez and Robin van Persie. Even more concerning was the presence of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in the same starting line-up for the first time since September.

With a combined age of 77, a sizeable number of Red Devils followers now believe it is time one of the pair — or both — should be pensioned off. It is a harsh judgement given what Giggs and Scholes have done down the years, but with Michael Carrick also present it was clear Newcastle were not going to be over-run down the middle of the pitch.

For all this, it was in defence where the hosts were found so badly wanting. The conditions were against him, but after Carrick gifted the visitors’ possession to the visitors cheaply inside his own half, David De Gea should have done much better than meekly parry Demba Ba’s skimmer straight to James Perch.

For a player who had never previously scored for Newcastle, Perch could hardly have hoped for an easier opportunity to break his duck. Behind once more, United’s attempts to force their way back were not convincing.

But when Van Persie drilled a free-kick into the Newcastle box, Hernandez pounced on the loose ball. The Mexican’s shot was blocked by Tim Krul, only for Jonny Evans to slide into the empty net.

It was the start of a hectic period for the Northern Irishman, who was booked for handball after becoming the third player this season — following Rooney and Gareth Bale — to score at both ends. That hardly tells the whole story though, as the debate over what now constitutes offside erupted after Evans turned a shot from United old-boy Danny Simpson past De Gea.

As Graham Poll quickly confirmed referee Mike Dean had got it right, it can only be assumed Papiss Cisse remained ‘non-active’ despite pressurising Evans from an offside position. Ferguson was not similarly convinced. As Dean made his way onto the pitch for the start of the second-half, Ferguson confronted the referee to make his feelings known.

Fourth official Neil Swarbrick also got it in the neck before the United manager rounded on assistant referee Jake Collin, who had initially raised his flag, believing Cisse had got the final touch. Thankfully, Dean had the good sense to speak to his fellow official at the time, ensuring justice was done.

For United, the spin-off was that the hairdryer treatment sparked a marked improvement and just before the hour Evra hauled them level for a second time when his low shot beat Krul to the bottom corner. Yet the cruise to victory never materialised.

Instead came more of the Kamikaze defending that has characterised United’s season. Red Devils old-boy Gabriel Obertan streaked down the wing and delivered a perfect cross for Cisse to smash home.

Newcastle held this lead for three minutes before Van Persie drove in his 16th goal of the season after Krul had saved his initial shot. Now Ferguson and Alan Pardew could only stand on the touchline and watch as this breathless, chaotic game headed for its conclusion.

United fury at a handball claim against Fabricio Coloccini that went unheeded was replaced by anguish as both Van Persie and Hernandez went close. De Gea got away with a near-calamitous misjudgement when he allowed Sammy Ameobi’s shot to roll past him, thinking it was going wide, only for it to hit a post and rebound straight back.

Hernandez was denied by Krul at the other end before Van Persie headed over as injury-time approached. Like two heavyweights slugging it out, swinging for all they were worth, their reliance on instinct total, there was one punch left.

And with it Hernandez knocked Newcastle out.

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