“Beware of the wounded animal” has oft been the phrase used to warn teams post a Manchester United defeat – they will bite back. Such has been the fighting spirit shown by the Red Devils under Sir Alex Ferguson that back-to-back defeats have become a most uncommon phenomenon.
After suffering a humiliating defeat at Old Trafford to Steve Kean’s floundering Blackburn side on New Year’s eve, Manchester United travelled to the North-East expecting to get back to winning ways – after all, they hadn’t lost to Newcastle United since 2001. On paper, this was as routine as a win was going to get.
But the visitors were in for another torrid 90 minutes as the hosts ripped through them right from the first blast of Howard Webb’s whistle.
Manchester United were handed a reprieve in the opening moments when the ever unreliable Rio Ferdinand clipped Demba Ba’s heel inside the penalty area but Howard Webb chose not to point to the spot, angering the majority of the 52 odd thousand crowd packed inside the Sports Direct Arena.
All eyes were on Wayne Rooney, returning from his club ban, to see how he would react to his omission from the Blackburn defeat. His reply was to put in a shift so abysmal, Tim Krul could’ve taken a day off and still kept a clean sheet. Rooney’s touch deserted him, his passing was wayward and his shooting was non-existent. Ryan Giggs managed to prod a wonderful through ball into his path in the first half only to see the Englishman step on the ball and fall flat on his face. That just about summed up his evening.
At the back, United were all over the place. Claims that Rio Ferdinand is well past his best surfaced in full again, as he was taken to the cleaners by Demba Ba. The first goal arrived via route one – a huge punt forward from Krul, glanced on by Ameobi and finished clinically by Ba. Patrice Evra has long been looking like a lost soul wandering the Premier League pitches and yesterday proved to be no different. He was beaten for pace and skill by any Newcastle player lucky enough to be in his path.
Phil Jones has been called the next England captain but the 19-year-old was so out of sorts, he made Shola Ameobi look like a half decent striker. He failed to win a single aerial challenge all evening and his woeful display culminated in him scoring an own goal – he went to head the ball despite Lindegaard calling for it, and managed to miss his header altogether and bundled the ball into his own net via his chest.
Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov have been enjoying a revival of late, but this game provided a stark reminder to both (and to the fans) that nothing can be taken for granted in this league. Carrick’s passing game was off-key, his passes going astray. He was over-run in midfield by the excellent Yohan Cabaye, scorer of an outstanding free-kick, and the always energetic Cheik Tiote.
Berbatov, on the other hand, was desperately unlucky not to score, his early header clipping Krul’s right-hand post. His case was not helped by the insipid performances of the supporting cast behind him.
Two consecutive defeats is a rare thing under the Alex Ferguson reign (this is only the third time it as happened since 2005), but a glance at the upcoming fixtures doesn’t offer any consolations. A trip to the blue side of Manchester awaits on Sunday, bringing back painful memories of the last Mancunian derby, and recent performances offer nothing but bleak hope to the United faithful. With trips to Chelsea and Arsenal also on the horizon, Sir Alex faces another test of his character, and by now we know this is the stage in which the determined Scotsman absolutely revels.