A Juan Mata double helped Manchester United warm up for their mammoth task in Munich in midweek with a comfortable 4-0 victory over an insipid Newcastle United side at St James’ Park.
After a forgettable first 38 minutes, Mata scored either side of half-time, the first a fine free-kick and the second a classy finish. With Newcastle’s resistance broken and space opening up, Javier Hernandez then added a third just past the hour mark after a slick move before a delightful one-two involving Mata saw Adnan Januzaj add an emphatic ring to the scoreline in injury time.
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, again banned from the touchline, had admitted that motivating players who largely had nothing left to play for this season was an issue. Yet, while they faded badly after going behind and there were sloppy errors for the second and third goals, as noticeable as the lack of intensity was the absence of quality. Yohan Cabaye had scored the winner when Newcastle won at Old Trafford earlier in the season, but his January departure has precipitated a steep downturn in both the mental and physical capabilities of his former team. With Loic Remy also missing and Hatem Ben Arfa curiously left on the bench until the 61st minute, Newcastle were lacking in both creativity and any real threat up front.
For much of the first-half Manchester United weren’t a lot better. Indeed, the visitors had almost allowed themselves to be dragged down to their opponents’ level before their quality in the final third shone through. Ultimately, it proved to be an ideal day for David Moyes.
In between the two clashes against Bayern Munich he was able to rest the likes of Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic and David de Gea and still maintain a sense of momentum coming toward what he hopes to be a more promising climax to an otherwise woeful first season in charge. And, with the absent Wayne Rooney still a doubt for Wednesday night in Bavaria, Moyes can take some solace from his replacement, Hernandez, looking as sharp as he has for some time. The main disappointment will be that the excellent Mata will not be able to take the field against Bayern.
There was not much to savor early on, however. It says much about the first-half that Newcastle right-back Davide Santon was the most threatening player for either team. His free-kick early on saw Dan Gosling head wide, while another fine cross later on created Newcastle’s best chance of the half. This time it was Papiss Cisse who got above Phil Jones at the near-post but he headed too close to Anders Lindegaard and the United stopper, making his first Premier League start of the season, tipped over.
Much of the play was a scrappy midfield battle. With both teams pushing up, the match was congested and neither side showed the requisite quality to open up space. Marouane Fellaini again looked clumsy both with his feet and his arms. In similar fashion to his recent incident in the Manchester derby, the £27.5 million signing flailed his arm in the face of Gosling and was lucky to escape sanction.
Again, despite having the creative talents of Mata, Shinji Kagawa and, after he replaced Ashley Young who went off with a hand injury, Januzaj as well as the diminutive Hernandez up front, far too often United resorted to slinging crosses into the box.
But it was one of United’s gifted men who stuck his head above the parapet and produced a moment of brilliance that was out of keeping with what had come before. Gosling had brought down Darren Fletcher just outside the box to the right of center. And, with Newcastle goalkeeper Rob Elliot perhaps too far over to the other side of his goal, Mata stepped up and curled a tremendous effort over the wall and into the top corner of the net.
From that moment on any fight from Newcastle was non-existent as they went down in disturbingly similar fashion as their 4-0 reversal against Southampton a week ago. United could have doubled their lead before the break. Hernandez got the benefit of the doubt with a high boot to control a long ball forward but, having got the ball back from Kagawa clean through on goal, his placed finish came back off the bottom of the post.
As it was it took until five minutes into the second half for Mata to double United’s lead. Fabricio Coloccini was terribly at fault in chesting a long ball down to no one in particular, allowing Kagawa to seize upon it and send Hernandez through down the right. The Mexican striker crossed it low into an abandoned Newcastle box, where Mata again showed the quality to rise above the general mediocrity on show with a dummy that left both Coloccini and Elliot on the ground, enabling him to roll the ball into the net.
From then on out the action was academic. Cisse forced another a couple of saves from Lindegaard, one of them particularly impressive, but Newcastle went down limply. And Manchester United added to the home side’s misery, with their front four combining encouragingly.
First, Januzaj found Kagawa running in behind the dozing Cheick Tiote and the Japanese playmaker continued an incisive move with a low ball to the near post where Hernandez showed his supreme penalty-box instincts once more to slide in and finish. Then with injury time ticking away, Mata executed a sublime back-heel back into the path of Januzaj and the teenager finished coolly beyond the beleaguered Elliot.