After three times coming from behind, Manchester United struck a last-game winner to inflict a cruel defeat on Newcastle at Old Trafford on Wednesday, 4-3.
The match was a microcosm of Manchester United’s season as their defensive cracks were papered over by their ability going forward. James Perch’s opener, an own goal from Jonny Evans and Papiss Cisse’s second-half strike all laid the Red Devils' vulnerabilities bare, but Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra and Robin van Persie on each occasion pulled the home side level.
After several missed chances, Javier Hernandez finally struck a fourth late on to give Sir Alex Ferguson's side a potentially crucial three points that takes them seven points clear of Manchester City, who lost at Sunderland.
Newcastle will feel dejected to have come away from nothing after giving so much to the game and striking the woodwork twice.
Coming into the contest after a much-needed win at the weekend, Newcastle’s confidence appeared to be buoyed further as they took the lead in just the fourth minute.
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Michael Carrick’s poor touch surrendered possession to Demba Ba inside his own half and the striker was able to progress before striking low at goal from 30 yards. The shot lacked real venom and should have been held by David De Gea, but instead he could only parry the ball straight to Perch who side-footed into the net for his first Newcastle goal.
Manchester United tried to apply the pressure, but their attacks lacked tempo with the one-paced Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the same midfield. It would take a set-piece for the hosts to pull level in the 25th minute.
After a scramble in the box following a free-kick, Hernandez fired in a low shot that Krul did well to block. But once again the rebound was to prove crucial as Evans showed the striking instincts of which Hernandez would have been proud to put the ball into the unguarded net.
Evans’ afternoon was soon to become even more eventful as he played a key role in the game’s most controversial moment. Danny Simpson’s low cross from the right went perfectly into the danger zone between defenders and goalkeeper and, under pressure from Papiss Cisse, Evans slid to intercept but could only put the ball into his own goal.
The goal initially looked like being ruled out, with Cisse in a clear offside position. However, to United’s consternation, referee Mike Dean decided that Cisse was not interfering despite tussling with Evans in the box.
The situation could have gotten even worse for Manchester United before the break as Sylvain Marveaux’s fine free-kick beat an unmoved De Gea but came back off the cross bar.
The second-half was even more eventful than the first. Just before the hour mark, United struck and again it was a defender that did the damage in the attacking third. Perch failed to get enough on his headed clearance and the ball fell to Evra, who beat a challenge and then hit a low shot that just had enough pace on the sodden surface to take it beyond the dive of Tim Krul.
While Manchester United dominated possession, without Nemanja Vidic, their defensive weakness would continue to offer the Magpies encouragement. There could be few who were genuinely surprised as another catalogue of errors saw Newcastle take the lead for a third time.
A simple throw in took out both Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand allowing substitute and former Red Devils winger Gabriel Obertan ro race clear down the left and supply a low cutback for Cisse who produced a fine first-time finish high into the net.
Yet, Manchester United’s attack is such that it can always bail them out of trouble. So it proved once again as they again evened things up in the 71st minute. Van Persie had an initial shot from the edge of the box that Krul blocked, but Newcastle couldn’t clear and Carrick kept it alive to allow the Dutchman to finish low into the net.
For the first time in the match, Manchester United were now creating chances at will and Newcastle were living on the edge as first Van Persie put a volley wide and then Hernandez missed an even better chance as he headed the wrong side of the post from six yards.
Newcastle were not merely sitting back, either, making for an engaging final period. Newcastle might have won it but substitute Sammy Ameobi’s shot from the edge of the box struck the foot of the post before bouncing back into the grateful arms of De Gea.
The greater opportunities fell the Red Devils' way, but it was looking like Hernandez’s unusual profligacy would cost them the three points as he failed to make the most from another header.
With Newcastle either unable or unwilling to close up their defense, Hernandez finally made them pay in the 90th minute. Carrick was the architect with a fine ball into the box and Hernandez was perfectly placed to turn the ball into the net from six yards out.
Ferguson looked understandably delighted at the final whistle and the Premier League now looks like being theirs to lose. However, he will also surely be concerned that their defensive problems will eventually prove costly.