Manchester United stuttered to their fifth defeat of the Premier League season on Sunday evening, losing 1-0 to relegation-threatened Newcastle United. Having seen league leaders and arch-rivals Manchester City steamroll Leicester City 5-1 the previous day, the Reds knew that only a win would do at St James’ Park in order to keep their unlikely pursuit of a 21st league title alive. The visitors were slow out of the blocks against the Magpies, attacking with little or no urgency against a side that started the afternoon in the bottom three.
Manager Jose Mourinho made a number of changes to the side that defeated Huddersfield Town 2-0 last weekend, with Phil Jones and Ashley Young restored to the starting XI in place of Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw. Further up the field, Anthony Martial took Juan Mata’s place on the right wing but it was in midfield that the most notable change was made. Record signing Paul Pogba, who was dropped at Old Trafford against the Terriers following a poor performance during the recent defeat at Tottenham, was brought back into the starting line-up in place of youngster Scott McTominay.
The visitors made a slow start to proceedings and were lucky not to fall behind within the first five minutes. Dwight Gayle’s low free-kick ricocheted off the wall and into the path of Jonjo Shelvey, whose fierce strike was destined for the top corner of the net, only for the superb David de Gea to pull off a stunning save and palm the ball away. Following the Spaniard’s stop, there was little in terms of goalmouth action in the first 45 minutes, although the best chance of the half fell to the visitors.
An inch-perfect ball from Nemanja Matic sliced through the Newcastle defence and picked out Martial, who carried the ball into the box and found himself one-on-one with the Magpies’ debutant goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. Most inside St James’ expected the net to ripple but the Slovakian shot-stopper made himself big to deny the Frenchman with a vital, low stop.
Minutes later, the hosts should have been awarded a penalty. United centre-back Chris Smalling’s rash-tackle just inside the box brought down Dwight Gayle, only for Newcastle’s appeals to be waved away. Shortly after the restart, the visitors did finally manage to put the ball into the net, only for Romelu Lukaku’s header to be ruled out for a foul. Seconds later, United’s new number seven nearly bagged his second goal for the club with what would have been a sublime solo strike. The Chile international danced his way past a couple of Newcastle challenges inside the box, only to see his goalbound strike deflected away for a corner.
Sanchez should have scored minutes later. Taking a fantastic Lukaku through ball in his stride, the Chilean went around Dubravka but was uncharacteristically hesitant, allowing Florian Lejeune to block his effort. Midway through the second half, United fell behind. Chris Smalling’s dive inside his own half saw the hosts awarded a free-kick, whilst the centre-back picked up a yellow card. United failed to deal with the resultant set-piece and the ball fell kindly for Matt Ritchie, unmarked and in acres of space inside the visitors’ box, who buried the ball past de Gea.
Mourinho’s immediate reaction was to make a double substitution, bringing Juan Mata and Michael Carrick on for Jesse Lingard and Pogba. Pogba, back in the team and with a point to prove, put in yet another poor performance in the middle of the park and was rightly hooked by the Portuguese. The remainder of the game was played inside Newcastle’s half, yet the visitors could not find a way past an inspired Geordie backline. Martial was unfortunate to see his two efforts blocked on the line towards the end of proceedings but in truth, United’s disappointing display hardly warranted the three points.
Rafael Benitez’s men held on for a precious three points in their fight to avoid the drop but for United, this result not only ends their title ambitions but weakens their standing in the top four. Next up for the Reds is an away trip to Huddersfield next Saturday, to take on Huddersfield in the FA Cup fifth round.