This was a League Cup match of unusual significance. The tournament is sponsored by Capital One, a credit card company, which is somewhat fitting given the cloud of debt that currently envelops Manchester United and the wider economy. Old Trafford was some thirty thousand short of capacity, which was probably a reflection of the fact that tickets were priced between £30 and £52 (thanks to The Republik of Mancunia and United Rant for these statistics). The game itself had a certain intensity before the opening whistle was blown, with the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew candidly stating in a pre-match interview that he believed that, at least on paper, the Manchester United line-up looked susceptible to threats from set-pieces.
From Manchester United's perspective, the two key issues here were the return of Wayne Rooney from injury and the presence of Darren Fletcher as a starter: Rooney would play 76 minutes, and Fletcher, who captained the side, would go on to complete the entire match. They began as part of a 4-3-3 formation, whose personnel looked appreciably stronger than that of the opposition. There were debuts for the centre-backs Scott Wootton and Michael Keane, for the right-back Marnick Vermijl, and for midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe, who would later come off the bench.
Rooney did not start as he meant to continue: his early movement, where he darted into the Newcastle area after laying the ball off to the flank, gave no hint as to how his game would develop. He dropped progressively deeper, sometimes as far as level as his own penalty area, and it was from this area that he played the pass of the match. On 28 minutes, with the tie still goalless, he took the ball on the left wing, some twenty-five yards from his own goal-line, just five yards or so from touch, and then, with one look up, he arched a sixty-yard pass high up towards the floodlights and then sharply down into the path of Welbeck, who tore onto it and then into the box - his shot hastily parried away by Elliot for a corner. As if to prove that he was in the mood, Rooney would shortly afterwards float a crossfield pass from deep, this time from left to right. The Old Trafford crowd, well accustomed to such delights thanks to Paul Scholes, roared in recognition and delight.
By the time of Rooney's lordly distribution, the home side had asserted their dominance of possession, which halfway through the first half stood at 58%-42% in favour of United. They had not achieved this without some attrition. For the first fifteen minutes or so, Newcastle's pressing had been notably persistent, highlighting the importance of Fletcher's return. A player who can bring out the ball effectively from his own backline is often not missed until he is gone, and once the Scotsman found his rhythm this problem was decisively negotiated. Marveaux's delivery and Ameobi's height presented twin problems for Manchester United's defensive pairing, but apart from one early concern - where Ameobi nodded down a very presentable volley for Gosling, just twelve or so yards out - they escaped the initial exchanges without major worries. Briefly intriguing, given the balls flighted into the Manchester United box with some regularity, was the rapturous applause that greeted De Gea's take of a particularly steep, looping cross: a nod to the security of his handling, and perhaps to his somewhat harsh omission from the Premier League line-up.
Elsewhere, Rooney was impressive, but his comeback was hijacked by other narratives. The most prominent of these was the form of Anderson. The Brazilian, starting for only the second time in 10 months, is - though still only 24 - regarded as something of a disappointment. Skilful, perceptive and energetic, he has so often merely threatened to provide the midfield impetus that Manchester United so sorely need, and against Newcastle he provided the game's outstanding performance. Early on, when breaking with three Manchester United players ahead of him, he played the wrong pass, sweeping the ball right to Cleverley when he would have been wiser to slide it to the marauding Welbeck or Hernandez: the rest of his game was some sort of protracted exercise in atonement. Almost all that he did thereafter was tremendous. He surged forward from 40 yards, muscled his way onto the end of a one-two, then had a shot fended off for a corner; then, seconds from half-time, he advanced and clattered a 25-yard drive in off Elliot's left-hand post.
Anderson and Rooney began the second half in similar fashion, their efforts helped by Newcastle's decision to play one man fewer in midfield: they played passes long and short with increasing ease, and it was upon their playmaking platform that Cleverley scored United's second and ultimately crucial goal. Perhaps still haunted by an appalling miss on 35 minutes, where he had shot wide from just ten yards with Elliot sprawling and fully committed, the England midfielder made thrilling amends. Taking the ball some twenty-two yards from goal, at the top of the area, he dipped his shoulder, turning away from the close coverage of a couple of nearby defenders, then used their flailing forms to shield a clipped, curling strike which drifted beyond the reach of Elliot and into the right-hand corner of his net. That 59th-minute goal, Cleverley's first for Manchester United, arrived in his nineteenth match for Manchester United. The hope must be that the composure with which he took it will set the tone for his finishing in future.
However, there was little time for complacency. Just three minutes later, Pardew's smart double substitution would yield Papiss Cisse's first goal of the season, the Senegalese striker heading home Shane Ferguson's left-wing cross from close range. This led to a somewhat frantic period of play as Newcastle sought parity whilst Manchester United sought the killing stroke: and Hernandez, superbly played in down the right by Rooney on 65 minutes, was only a shuddering crossbar's width from providing it.
Rooney retired to the bench soon afterwards, and the match had two more newsworthy moments before the close. The first was Ryan Tunnicliffe's first team debut, enjoyed perhaps most of all by his father, who when his son was aged nine had placed a bet of £100 that he would one day play for the first team. Tunnicliffe Senior collected the tidy sum of £10,000 for his investment, and with foresight like that we should probably be asking him about next summer's transfer targets. The other moment was Papiss Cisse's delightfully instinctive overhead kick on 80 minutes, which rebounded off De Gea's crossbar, and with its ricochet Newcastle lost their final real chance.
It is rare that Manchester United fans will have left their stadium seats (or, for that matter, their TV and PC screens) with such optimism after the first round of the League Cup. Keane and Wootton came creditably through a fairly stern defensive examination. Buttner showed an encouraging amount of defensive rigour against the fast feet of Obertan. Anderson shone, and Rooney rolled back into form. The only brief pauses for thought were provided by Hernandez, who is working hard to rediscover scoring form but is desperate for a little luck, and Vermijl, whose movement was bright and incisive at times yet whose inexperience was now and then in evidence. Chelsea await in the next round, a side who will undoubtedly be more formidable than Newcastle, but there is every sign that this group of players will be looking forward to it. As, indeed, they should be.
Manchester United (4-3-3): De Gea; Vermijl, M Keane, Wootton, Buttner; Fletcher, Cleverley, Anderson; Rooney (Powell 76), Welbeck, Hernandez.
Newcastle (4-4-2): Elliot; Perch, Coloccini (Ferguson 61), Williamson, Tavernier; Obertan, Tiote, Gosling, Marveaux; Vuckic (Cisse 61), Ameobi.
Attendance: 46,358 (Old Trafford)
APManchester United's Wayne Rooney returns from injury against Newcastle.