Manchester United finally provided some entertainment for their suffering supporters, but for manager Louis van Gaal there was far too much drama on show at St James’ Park on Tuesday. All had appeared rosy for Van Gaal’s men when a Wayne Rooney penalty and a Jesse Lingard finish put them 2-0 to the good. But Newcastle fought back, with a goal just before halftime from Georginio Wijnaldum and then an Aleksandar Mitrovic penalty midway through the second half. The match then looked to have received its dramatic finale when Rooney fired home a superb strike with 11 minutes remaining, only for Paul Dummett’s blaster from the edge of the box to fly off of Chris Smalling as the contest was about to tick into injury time.
Criticism of Van Gaal had grown in volume as United’s dismal play was evidenced by a run of five matches without a first-half goal. Yet, led by a much more exuberant performance from Rooney and the pace of Lingard and Anthony Martial on the wings, Manchester United played with far more verve and incisiveness. With that, though, came the loss of control that Van Gaal has so often preached as the essential element of his philosophy.
Still, plenty of credit is due to Newcastle. The second-half performance in particular was evidence of the degree to which Steve McClaren’s side are underachieving this season in languishing in the Premier League’s bottom three. Yet it was a display that should offer plenty of confidence in their battle to avoid relegation as the two United’s produced the type of entertainment that both were synonymous with when they battled for the Premier League title 20 years ago.
Such lofty honors are now a long way beyond Newcastle’s reach, and also currently beyond that of Manchester United. Just a solitary point at St James’ Park means Van Gaal’s side drop down to sixth in the table, with first-placed Arsenal having a chance to move 11 points clear of them on Wednesday.
Such late drama was hard to imagine when Rooney played a key role in giving his team taking a 2-0 lead. The visitors went in front inside nine minutes when the ball hit Chancel Mbemba’s outstretched arm in the box and referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot in the first of several tough decisions that were thrown his way during the 90 minutes. For the second match in succession, Rooney converted from 12 yards.
Rooney had earlier spurned a clear chance when through on goal, but the England skipper continued to make amends. In the 38th minute he expertly set up Jesse Lingard with a disguised reverse pass to fire through the legs of Newcastle goalkeeper Rob Elliot and seemingly send the away side onto victory.
Yet Newcastle showed admirable character to capitalize on their opponents’ uncharacteristic openness. They had already been denied a strong penalty claim after Lingard bundled down Daryl Janmaat, when they crucially pulled a goal back before the interval. And it was a fine goal, too, with Fabricio Coloccini chipping a pass into the box that striker Aleksandar Mitrovic headed down into the path of Georginio Wijnaldum, who stylishly beat David de Gea with a superb low volley.
Manchester United had a glorious chance to reestablish their two-goal cushion early in the second half, but to the obvious and sizable frustration of Van Gaal, Lingard blasted over with a clear sight of goal. It proved a costly miss. Soon after, Chris Smalling was penalized for engaging in a wrestling contest with Mitrovic at a corner and, after a second penalty in the match was awarded, the Serbian striker coolly applied the finish.
It was to prove just the beginning of a thrilling second half. Capping surely his best performance of a dismal season, Rooney restored his team’s lead. Seeing the ball roll into his path onto the edge of the box, the 30-year-old hammered it high into the net with the type of technically proficient exuberance that has been so sorely lacking from his game for so long. It was not, though, to be the last word. Dummett and Smalling ensured that Van Gaal had entertainment but not a victory to savor.