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Sep 26, 2012

The unlikely lads

Some Manchester United back fours trip off the tongue. There was Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Paul Parker in Sir Alex Ferguson's first great team; Irwin, Ronny Johnson, Jaap Stam and Gary Neville when he made United European champions in 1999; Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown when they returned to the summit nine years later.

They were names that scarcely needed to be written on the teamsheet; they just automatically appeared. But if it is a three-way battle to be crowned Ferguson's finest defence, this was surely the most obscure. Thrust together by a combination of the Capital One Cup and an injury crisis, four men with two previous United appearances between them, and one of those was as a substitute. Step forward Alexander Buttner, Scott Wootton, Michael Keane and Marnick Vermijl.

They were the greenhorn Red Devils. Seventeen years after Ferguson was famously told he couldn't win anything with kids, he emerged victorious against Newcastle, albeit aided by the more seasoned figures further forward. Anderson scored a terrific opening goal, his first for almost a year, and Tom Cleverley netted a fine first of his United career.

Under other circumstances the novelty factor would have been supplied by the return of Wayne Rooney, out injured since August, or a first start in 10 months for Darren Fletcher. But an entirely new defence is a rarity, even in a competition that ranks near the bottom of the priority list.

With Vidic, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling injured, and Evra, Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva saved for Spurs on Saturday, Ferguson turned to a group half a century his junior. Had Papiss Cisse played more than half an hour or had Newcastle deployed two strikers earlier, Ferguson's gamble might have backfired.

Instead, inexperience was not an impediment to their side's progress. "They did their best," the manager said. "They handled it quite well." Nevertheless, there was a series of mismatches at set-pieces, where Keane marked the rather taller Shola Ameobi, Vermijl was detailed with halting Fabricio Coloccini and Rooney was towered over by Mike Williamson, highlighting the perils of an untried and undersized defence.

Aerial attack appeared Newcastle's most profitable approach long before it actually produced a goal, even if it was in open play. It followed a double substitution with the most immediate of impacts. A minute after their introduction, one arrival, Shane Ferguson, crossed and another, Cisse, eluded Wootton to get off the mark for the season. "That goal was everything for him and then his feathers were up," manager Alan Pardew said.

Indeed, the introduction of a blue-chip centre-forward provided a swift education to the ingénues. With a brilliant piece of improvisation, the Sengalese launched into an acrobatic overhead kick; but for the bar, it would have been a goal-of-the-season contender. "Magnificent," added Pardew. "A highlight of the evening for me."

There were other alarms for his hosts. Keane was bamboozled by Haris Vuckic, turning away from him and shooting narrowly wide. While Vermijl overlapped enthusiastically - one curling cross could have been headed in by Javier Hernandez - he endured some shaky moments in defence, especially after Ferguson's entrance.

The Belgian made way as the back four became still younger with the introductions of two further debutants, Robbie Brady and Ryan Tunnicliffe. The latter's father, who had wagered Tunnicliffe junior would one day play for United back when he was nine, was £10,000 better off.

United's reward, meanwhile, was a fourth-round tie at Chelsea. It was secured by Anderson's swerving shot, bent back inside the post, and Cleverley's curler, the Englishman redeeming himself after a glaring first-half miss. "They were both terrific strikes," added Ferguson. "The second goal was a really good bit of football."

The scorers occupied the wider roles in a midfield diamond that had the returning Rooney at its tip. A deeper role allowed him to illustrate his passing range: a raking 60-yard drive set up Danny Welbeck for a chance, a slide-rule pass allowed Javier Hernandez to gallop clear and rattle the bar. "They are three of the best strikers in the world," said Pardew, with a hint of hyperbole.

Nevertheless, it highlighted the imbalance in the United side, frontloaded with feared forwards in front of unknown defenders. The unlikely lads appeared on a night when strangers took to the Old Trafford turf. Deep into Fergie Time, a belly-flopping pitch invader amused the Manchester United manager. The trespasser may find himself banned, the interlopers in the first team restored to the reserves, but their presence on the pitch left the manager in good heart and good humour nonetheless.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Anderson. Sidelined by the veterans in the midfield this season, the Brazilian provided a reminder of his energy. He was a bustling presence on the right of the quartet in the middle and took his goal superbly.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Job done. A sixth successive win was secured while keeping players fresh for the visit of Tottenham on Saturday. Rooney played for 77 minutes and, his manager said, tired towards the end, but looked in good condition to play in the Premier League. Fletcher was a solid sentry in front of the back four, permitting Rooney, Cleverley and Anderson to be United's outstanding players.

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: As he has done in the Europa League, Pardew fielded a youthful team - indeed, only Cheik Tiote and Coloccini, both returning from injury, figured in his strongest side - and there were positives. Rob Elliot again looked a goalkeeper of promise and James Tavernier an attacking left-back with skill and zest. The most encouraging element for Newcastle, however, was surely Cisse's impact as a substitute. After a long wait for his first goal of the season, the Senegalese striker looked ominously sharp.

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