|photo by machernucha||via PhotoRee|
April 19 / St. James Park / Newcastle, England
It's back to the Chicharooney partnership to provide offense tonight in front of 50,000-plus Geordies looking to rain on United's victory parade. Sir Alex prefers ex-toonside star Michael Owen to Dimitar Berbatov for late offense, if needed, and Owen is joined in reserve by Antonio Valencia. Chris Smalling partners Vidic in central defense, and Anderson is granted a rare start alongside Michael Carrick in the engine room. VDS, Evra, O'Shea, Nani and Giggs round out the squad.
United are looking to bounce back immediately from a rare weekend loss, and Newcastle will be seeking to add to the Reds' short list of woes. The game begins with a bang, as Newcatle 'keeper Tim Krul moves quickly to deny a certain goal when Rooney picks out Chicha with an immaculate cross, but Krul's left arm is up to the forceful challenge. It would have been an ideal start to the game for a team looking lively from the get go, but Newcastle quickly bounce back and only Joey Barton's inability to pull the trigger, a blocked shot on a Jonas Guttierez effort, and Van der Sar's quick reflexes to deny Shola Ameobi keep the contest equal.
United's defense is at sixes and sevens in the early going, and Newcastle control the ball more than 75% of the time as they take the game straight at the visitors. United weather the initial storm, and it appears unlikely either team will be able to keep up the electric pace over the full 90 minutes. Michael Carrick nearly repeats the giveaway trick he pulled off during the FA Cup semi-final versus City, but Newcastle are unable to take advantage of the local lad's generosity.
Although the home side (with Chiek Tiote in particular showing his fine form) is bossing the midfield, Chicharito carves out another rare chance for the Reds, but his long laser is slightly high and wide. Rooney is in on goal just a minute later, but this time it's Krul's forehead putting the ball up and over the bar, as referee Lee Probert erroneously awards a goal kick. At the 20 minute mark United have played their way back into the match, and appear to be inching their way closer to a breakthrough.
Nani is felled in the box near the half hour mark, but referee Probert -- and, in fact, Nani himself --ignores the potential foul. Guttierez misfires from short range at the other end, and it's fairly incredible that the game is still lacking a goal after all these chances. Giggs slides into the center of the pitch to provide some certainty to possession that's been lacking with Anderson, although his initial attempt to pick out Chicharito with a long ball is just slightly out of reach.
United are steering the game in their favor as it approaches halftime, and Newcastle appear to have run their legs out with the early pace, but an initial score is still lacking. Peter Lovenkrands is remarkably unaware of how much space he has to himself in front of Van de Sar just before the half, and it's a frustrated United that head to the break sitting on a tied scoreline.
United bat the ball around tentatively to begin the second half, but soon shift to the front foot. Giggs is denied on a header straight at the Toon 'keeper, and VDS is quick to repay the favor to Ameobi at the other end. Rooney swings the ball across the pitch to Nani, but the Portugfuese winger is over the bar from distance.
Michael Carrick carries the ball the length of the pitch only to be denied on his passing attempt, and both teams trade opportunities on the break. Anderson is fortunate not to concede a penalty when he fells Lovenkrands in the box before the game devolves into a two-way track meet. Although there appear to be at least a goal in this one, with less than a half hour remaining it's unclear how or when it will come.
Rooney lines up for a 30 yard free kick as the clock ticks on 65 minutes, but it's not his best effort as the ball is easily held by Krul. Ryan Giggs will be wondering how he misses a wide open chance -- probably the best of the night -- when Stephen Ireland is introduced to the action. Sir Alex counters and shows his attacking intent by swapping Anderson for Valencia with 20 minutes left. Giggs once again moves central, and Nani shuttles to the left to make room for the Ecuadorian.
Ireland makes almost an immediate impact, although his effort ends up just wide, and Alan Pardew brings on Nile Ranger in place of Shola Ameobi to try and force a goal. While Smalling hobbles around on a semi-twisted ankle, Vidic is bloodied and forced momentarily to the sideline.
There's a rash of giveaways by both teams as each search for an advantage. When Nani is spilled by Mike Williamson in a dangerous position, Giggs and Rooney huddle over the ball, but it's Giggs who takes the kick, which is deflected off the wall and into yet another non-productive effort from the corner. This time, United at least try to mix it up with something short, but Nani's effort fizzling just wide.
Michael Owen enters the match for Nani after the clock signals ten minutes left, and his introduction prompts the home crowd to serenade the ex-toon man with a shower of boos. United apply pressure in the closing minutes, but never appear likely to score. It's a tired effort, the result of the recent fixture pileup becoming readily apparent. It's not United's best effort of the season, but it's also far from the worst. The Reds leave Arsenal adrift by seven points heading into their game at Spurs, and if they're not in position to put the League away, United are still in pole position.
Newcastle captain Kevin Nolan may have offered a Freudian slip when he stated pre-game that he hoped his side would get the point it deserved in the contest, and it does in fact appear that Newcastle were more than happy to settle for a point on the night.
This is farlieonfootie for April 21.