Imperfect United display perfect timing
The script may be old, but it never seems tired. Manchester United's capacity to mount energising, life-affirming comebacks continues. They respond in a manner that is both predictable and startling at the same time. They turn a setback into a success. They deliver a largely disappointing display and yet send people home delirious. It is an extraordinary habit.
And this, in many respects, ranked among their most improbable comebacks. Even United rarely go behind three times in the same game but something that, without the dramatic denouement, would be cause for condemnation, instead became a reason for celebration. Newcastle United led for 54 minutes of the match, Manchester United for stoppage time. They took the points.
For the eighth time in half a season, the great escapologists have transformed a failure into a fantastic finish. "It tells you about the courage of our team," Sir Alex Ferguson said. They have taken 24 points from losing positions; subtract those 24 and they would sit level on points with Sunderland, whose victory over Manchester City means a seven-goal thriller put United seven points ahead.
They were epitomised by the combinations between Michael Carrick and Javier Hernandez which bookended the game. The Mexican's misplaced pass, aimed at the midfielder, resulted in James Perch's opening goal; the Englishman's curling cross brought the striker's sublime shot as the clock reached the 90-minute mark, weighting a seesaw game in the Mancunian United's direction. Sloppy at the start, excellent at the end, they displayed perfect timing in an imperfect display.
"That was a championship performance," Ferguson said. It wasn't, however - though it may prove a title-winning result. There were errors everywhere. The first goal was also attributable to David de Gea, who pushed Ba's shot straight out to James Perch. As he had at Swansea, the goalkeeper displayed a habit of parrying shots into the path of on-rushing opponents.
Newcastle's second goal brought a half-time tirade from Ferguson, aimed at referee Mike Dean, assistant Jake Collin and fourth official Neil Swarbrick, that might have seen a lesser manager sent to the stands. However, the men in red were rather more culpable than those in black. Ryan Giggs allowed Danny Simpson to advance and cross. Jonny Evans, whose performance was riddled with mistakes, turned it past De Gea.
It was first disallowed, then permitted, the officials realising an offside Papiss Cisse had not touched the ball. Ferguson claimed the striker had tugged Evans, arguing: "If that's not interference, what is interference?" Alan Pardew said: "I thought it was an own goal and it doesn't matter if anyone's 20 yards offside. I can't see a problem with it."
There wasn't one, much as Ferguson insisted otherwise. Yet on an afternoon when a former City player, in Adam Johnson, condemned Roberto Mancini's men to defeat, two United alumni created goals against them. The difference, of course, came in the game's conclusion but after Simpson supplied one, Gabriel Obertan provided another, setting up Cisse for a rare strike and Ferguson admitted: "The third goal was a killer for us, a kick in the teeth."
Yet this is a team whose powers of recovery have been proven time and again. Credited and debited with goals, Evans scored the first equaliser after Tim Krul parried Hernandez's shot. Patrice Evra, a scorer in successive games, supplied the second from 20 yards. Then Robin van Persie, lucky to be alive according to Ferguson on Sunday, revived United with their third of the day and his 13th of the season. "Van Persie and Hernandez were absolutely phenomenal," Ferguson said, selecting the match-winner for particular praise. "His movement and courage are unbelievable."
Even after the Dutchman levelled, however, Newcastle were inches away from a first win at Old Trafford since 1972. They were a fraction away from scoring five times with Sylvain Marveaux rattling the bar at 2-1 and Sammy Ameobi striking wood at 3-3. "That was the key moment," said Pardew. "It hits the inside of the post."
But late drama had a cruelty to Newcastle, the pain metaphorical and literal. Vurnon Anita was stretchered off after an injury-time challenge from Antonio Valencia, who had already been booked. "I was a bit upset with that tackle," added Pardew, whose problems have been compounded. "Our whole midfield from last year are out."
Without them, the understudies excelled. Two-and-a-half years into his time on Tyneside, Perch belatedly opened his Newcastle account which, like Evans' feat of scoring at both ends, gave the occasion a unique feel. Yet the conclusion was all too familiar. Manchester United, yet again, had gone from losers to winners.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Javier Hernandez - When chances went begging, it felt that it was not Hernandez's day. Yet his reward for persistence eventually arrived. The Mexican was a pest for the Newcastle defence throughout.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Four goals and three very valuable points but United were only at their best in the final 20 minutes and, besides Van Persie, Hernandez and Carrick, very few players performed well. Injuries forced Ferguson to field a midfield with both Giggs and Paul Scholes in it and, with the 39-year-old and the 38-year-old in harness, they struggled to play at pace. Giggs at least offered something going forwards but it is a safe bet that Tom Cleverley will start against West Brom on Saturday. United's defending, as Ferguson admitted, was a cause for concern.
NEWCASTLE VERDICT: Underachievers this season threatened to be overachievers on this occasion. The disappointment for Pardew was that whereas a new-look midfield impressed, a fairly settled defence underperformed and were found wanting. A gameplan of looking to spring quick counter-attacks worked well and Cisse, a disappointment this season, looked lively.