RepublikOfMancunia.org‘s monthly paper, The Voice of Mancunia, has deemed our devastating victory over Newcastle as our match of the month in February. With a month that saw our 4-0 Cup win over Arsenal, Tevez’s last minute equaliser against Spurs and a crucial away goal against Lyon in Europe, it is our 5-1 routing of Newcastle that got the thumbs up. Read on to find out why.
When Scott asked me last week to write about the Match of the Month for February, my first reaction was to nervously confirm with him that, of course, he must mean *that* match – the 5th round FA Cup tie victory over Arsenal. Our 4-0 demolition of the Gunners was, after all, an emotional high point in the season so far, particularly coming on the heels of our team’s dismal league performance in the Manchester Derby. But Scott assured me that as long as I was prepared to defend my choice, the selection of MOTM was up to me. I responded that I would reserve judgment until after Saturday’s outing to St. James’ Park. And I am very glad that I waited, because Saturday’s 1-5 victory at Newcastle is my choice for Match of the Month.
Of course, we all shared high-fives, and whooped and screamed, watching Arsenal unravel at Old Trafford on February 16th. The Red Devils delivered the kind of performance that had the pundits fumbling for new superlatives. Rooney’s constant marauding threat, Nani’s brilliant display of control, verve and skill, the staggering promise of 19-year-old Anderson, the delight of Fletcher’s two-goal contribution in the absence of Ronaldo – these highlights dominated discussion in the media and fan forums for days after. But underneath the giddiness, most supporters recognized that it was a weakened Arsenal side that United dismantled that Saturday. United had the bigger desire, and the greater depth, and for a variety of reasons, the Gunners had left their best game back in London.
Defeat on the 16th would have spelled an end to our FA Cup hopes for this season; a loss made more unpalatable coming at the hands of our top league rivals. Yes, we would have grieved, questioned, and perhaps accused Sir Alex of not giving the Cup the respect that tradition and history demand. Yes, we would have seethed under the taunting of Gunner supporters. But the truth remains that, as painful as it would have been, a Cup round knock-out would have freed us to concentrate fully on two greater priorities: the Premiership and the Champions League.
Manchester United must finish this season as repeat Premiership champions. Our tradition, our quality, our vision, our standards, our depth, demand nothing less. A draw, or worse, a loss at St. James’ Park, coupled with an Arsenal win at St. Andrew’s on Saturday, would have meant beginning the month of March at least 7 points behind the Gunners – an almost insurmountable gap with only eleven fixtures left in the season, and a superb Arsenal squad leading the race. On this key weekend, with memories of the disappointing Derby still fresh, United needed to dig deep, display strength and character, and be ready to pounce on any opportunity to gain points.
Chances in the Premier League sometimes come packaged in unlikely and unpleasant ways. Eduardo suffers a terrible injury in the opening minutes of his match on Saturday, his horrified teammates’ composure is rattled, a questionable call, a late penalty kick, and Arsenal’s match ends in a 2-2 draw. The Brummies handed us a gift. Could we take advantage of it?
A trip to Newcastle would not be a walk in the proverbial park. Yes, they had not won in ten matches, and their defence is leaking goals like a sieve. But Keegan is desperate to salvage a point or three, and Newcastle United were sure to be fresh and fit after two weeks without competition, and keen on revenge for their 6-0 drubbing at Old Trafford last month. And of course, Newcastle boasts a couple of quality MUFC alumni in Butts and Smith, lads who would be more than happy to say hello by putting one in the back of our net. And the crowd at St. James’ Park is large, loud and hostile.
We had lost abysmally, shamefully, in our last league fixture, and watched our league lead slip away, with doubters speculating that our trophy chances had evaporated. There were murmurs in the forums that Rooney was “overrated”, and Ronaldo was having a “dry spell”. We had played our cup tie on the 16th, and this was followed by a busy match in Lyon in mid-week; European trips usually leaving us tired and out of sorts for days after. And everyone was speculating on what kind of line-up Sir Alex would present. “Just please make it our strongest XI”, someone posted on the forum.
The lineup? In my eyes, a confirmation of what United will look like in the seasons to come, and another reason why this match counts as my Match of the Month. Sir Alex is looking, clear-eyed and unsentimental, to the future. Ryan Giggs, now reported to be preparing for his coaching license, was absent and Paul Scholes, still not on form after returning from injury, was on the bench. The best back four in the league were represented in Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand and Brown, with O’Shea on the bench. An awesome, and yes, world-class, midfield in Ronaldo, Carrick, Fletcher, and Nani, with Anderson and Scholes poised in wait. Rooney and Tevez side by side up front, with Saha for back-up. Truly intimidating.
For the first 20 minutes of the match, Newcastle’s defence and midfield coped well with the probing of Ronaldo, Rooney and Nani. Michael Owen flicked a cross from N’Zogbia just wide early on. Newcastle were delivering some hard but fair tackles. Then Nani and Ronaldo switched wings, throwing confusion at Newcastle. A lapse in focus by N’Zogbia allowed Rooney to capitalize on a beautifully struck cross from Ronaldo for the first goal. Newcastle’s defence began to crumble as our midfield, led by Carrick, played a sublime passing game, constantly seeking to create space and opportunity and to move the ball forward. Rooney played striker, winger and midfielder, all with equal exuberance. Nani again displayed pace and inventiveness, while enduring some hard pokes from Newcastle defenders, perhaps in retaliation for his display against Arsenal. Our pressure and pace were consistent, and Ronaldo and Tevez missed on near-chances to score. A beauty of a delivery from Carrick set up Ronaldo for the second goal just before the half time whistle. 0-2 at half time, and it should have been 0-3 or more.
When play resumed, Evra had made way for O’Shea at left back. Shay Given, nursing a groin injury, was replaced by Steve Harper in goal. Damien Duff and Nicky Butt both had shots that forced saves from Edwin van der Sar. James Milner threatened. But still Newcastle did not capitalize on any momentum. Ronaldo scored again, ten minutes into the second half, after slipping, losing possession and watching Newcastle deliver the ball to the feet of Fletcher, who released it effortlessly right back to Ronaldo. Dazzling! A hat trick beckoned. But not to be, as the Portuguese winger was called off for an energetic-looking Louis Saha in the 67th minute. Vidic too, was replaced, when he suffered a painful knock to the leg. Paul Scholes came into the midfield, and Fletcher shifted to the back. As our side adjusted to the changes, from a Newcastle corner, Faye took advantage to score for Newcastle.
Up to that point, our team may have been content to coast for a victory, but Faye’s goal sparked another surge. As a punishment for their initiative, Newcastle received a spanking in the form of two more goals. Nani delivered a corner to Rooney, who curled in a fine right-footed shot. And in stoppage time, Saha worked from the midfield, assisted by Rooney, to score a goal of pure quality, just before the final whistle. 1-5 final score.
Sir Alex attributed the victory to a “fresh” midfield and superb front players. I would add that when he gives our players the freedom to roam the pitch, supporting, inventing and creating, we are simply without equal in the Premier League. Manchester United looks unstoppable as the team heads into March, with Arsenal looking back over their shoulders, *only* three points ahead. And that is why Newcastle United v Manchester United is my Match of the Month.
Newcastle: Given (Harper 46), Beye, Taylor, Faye, N’Zogbia, Milner (Geremi 84), Butt, Barton (Carroll 61), Duff, Smith, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Cacapa, Ameobi.
Booked: N’Zogbia, Faye, Owen, Butt.
Goals: Faye 79.
Man Utd: Van der Sar, Brown, Vidic (Scholes 74), Ferdinand, Evra (O’Shea 46), Ronaldo (Saha 67), Carrick, Fletcher, Nani, Rooney, Tevez.
Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, Anderson.
Goals: Rooney 25, Ronaldo 45, 56, Rooney 80, Saha 90.
Ref: Chris Foy