Newcastle stun Man United in 3-3 thriller despite Wayne Rooney's brace
NEWCASTLE, England -- Three points from St. James' Park as Newcastle fought back from 2-0 and 3-2 down to earn a 3-3 draw against Manchester United.
1. Newcastle, Man United buck trends in 3-3 thriller
Perhaps it was appropriate that a Newcastle vs. Manchester United fixture bucked current trends so spectacularly. Twenty years ago, two freewheeling sides wearing these colours fought out one of the Premier League's most exhilarating title races; neither of these teams can be compared favourably with the classes of 1996 but this was a breathless encounter that brought pace, power, fine goals, excruciating misses and some high controversy, resulting in a last-gasp 3-3 draw and one of the best matches of this season.
With both teams' scoring issues dominating the pregame agenda, it might have been for the best that an early plot twist opened the game up -- but it did not come without controversy. Daley Blind's deep ninth-minute corner was met at the far post by Marouane Fellaini and Chancel Mbemba, jumping with him, blocked. Little appeared untoward until referee Mike Dean pointed to the penalty spot.
There had been no appeals but it transpired that the ball had struck the arm of Mbemba, who could hardly have got out of the way. Rooney sent Rob Elliot the wrong way and boos rang around St James's Park from a home faithful whose side had started marginally the brighter.
The game rapidly developed into entertaining fare, the speed of the game increasing as the first half drew on. Rooney and Georginio Wijnaldum exchanged misses just before the half-hour when Jesse Lingard finished a superb counter-attack and seemingly put Van Gaal's side in view of their most commanding away victory since winning 3-0 at Everton in October.
But nothing comes quite that easily for United these days; Wijnaldum's delightfully placed finish gave Newcastle a lifeline in the 42nd minute and they missed further opportunities, most glaringly through Lingard, to extend their lead early in the second half.
They were made to pay when Dean made the second of his controversial penalty calls. The situation was similar: a left-footed corner from the right, this time swung in by Jack Colback. Chris Smalling and Aleksandar Mitrovic were certainly grappling as the ball was delivered, but it was a brave call to pick the defender out as the chief culprit. Mitrovic, undeterred, finished coolly.
Rooney's thunderous strike seemed at once to be a throwback and a winner for Manchester United; he was outdone, through, by a stunning bolt from the blue by the home left-back Paul Dummett -- who seized upon a clearance with a minute left to play and thrashed the ball high into the net from 20 yards. He was an unlikely saviour in what turned out to be the most unlikely of games.
2. Man United's speed, width offers hope
"I like speed on the wings," said Van Gaal in a pre-match interview, explaining Lingard's selection ahead of the more circumspect Juan Mata. Lingard began on the left while Anthony Martial was charged with asking questions of Dummett on the opposite flank.
Many of United's problems this season have revolved around an inability to feed their more direct players quickly enough, but they were a constant threat here as Newcastle -- albeit chasing the game from an early stage -- were frequently exposed. After 27 minutes, Lingard nipped in quickly to feed Rooney, bursting clear down the inside-left channel, who should have done better than shoot wide of Eliot's far post.
United's second goal arose from the same combination, breaking at a pace rarely seen this season. Rooney found himself in a similar position before checking back, waiting for the overlapping Lingard and playing a perfect reverse pass that the 20-year-old met with a cool finish.
Martial drove at Dummett before seeing a shot deflected wide; shortly after half-time, it was his run and square pass that eventually resulted in Lingard skying a sitter over the bar from 10 yards. It was nothing intricate but it was efficient, purposeful football and fundamental to it was the fact that United (and the impressive Herrera in particular) were moving the ball into space far more quickly than they have at almost any stage this season.
Memphis Depay came on for Lingard but his side were forced back after Mitrovic's equaliser and space was at a premium until 11 minutes from time, he finally did get a sight of goal. His 20-yard effort was blocked and the rebound thrashed in remorselessly for the kind of goal Rooney has been lacking for too long.
There was still time for Depay to run to the left byline and cross for Fellaini to see a header superbly saved by Eliott but United rode their luck during the second half and were eventually made to pay. That said, the way in which they exploited the gaps left for them here might ultimately point towards a more exciting future.
3. Newcastle set standard for their new signings
Before kick-off, Newcastle paraded new midfield signings Henri Saivet and Jonjo Shelvey on the St James's Park pitch. The applause was polite rather than overwhelming, but it will have resonated loudly within the home dressing room: Here were two direct and experienced challengers for places in a faltering engine room, with the promise of further reinforcements to come.
On this evidence, the pair might not need to be parachuted in straightaway. It took Newcastle some time to get going after their composed start was quickly ruined by Rooney's controversial opener. Their first chance -- Wijnaldum being denied by David de Gea's legs after a cute Mitrovic pass -- presaged their first goal as Wijnaldum cushioned a lovely shot past the goalkeeper from the Serbian's header down. Overall, the partnership between the pair, with Wijnaldum bursting through from midfield, seemed to have been worked on extensively.
The home side's second-half performance was rousing as Cheick Tiote and Jack Colback, those whose places are most obviously under threat, tore into challenges and recycled the ball intelligently. Mitrovic, leading the line, also threw himself around like a man possessed, battering Smalling and Daley Blind at times and perhaps earning his luck for the penalty. Fabricio Coloccini could be seen winning a 50-50 challenge deep inside the United half, too.
Newcastle didn't create enough chances to win the game but they were certainly worthy of a point after a performance that showed the spirit and application they lacked earlier in the season. Perhaps it showed their new boys, too, that their paths into the starting lineup will not necessarily be that smooth.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.