Lack of firepower fully exposed

August 17, 2008
By Richard Jolly
(Archive)

Manchester United 1-1 Newcastle United

Twelve months ago, it was John O'Shea. Now it was Rafael Da Silva and Rodrigo Possebon. Manchester United began the defence of their Premier League title short of firepower and with an unwelcome dose of déjà vu. In August 2007, Reading frustrated a makeshift strikeforce that included the Irish utility man. Today it was Newcastle, displaying unusual resilience but confronted by a forward line that comprised, at times, of Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra and two teenage Brazilian debutants.

Nemanja Vidic, Jonas Gutierrez
GettyImages / AndrewYatesNemanja Vidic tackles Jonas Gutierrez

In his absence, the case for Dimitar Berbatov was made. Waiting for Berba, a source of frustration rather than a modernist drama, has been a constant of Manchester United's summer. 'I'm not discussing anyone,' growled Sir Alex Ferguson when asked if United's failure to secure the points would prompt a bigger bid for the Bulgarian.

Without him and with Carlos Tevez absent, United began with another of their untried forwards. Rather than Berba, it was Fraizer, a forward more accustomed to partnering Dean Windass than Wayne Rooney. Fraizer Campbell's first Premier League start presented him with a rare opportunity. It was not one he could grasp as Shay Given, scourge of many a striker, thwarted him.

His clearest chance was his first. Rooney supplied the cross with the outside of his right foot. His new partner propelled himself forwards to meet it, but his header struck Given's forehead and rebounded to safety. The Irishman produced two further stops in the second half.

With his pace and persistence, Campbell displayed promise, but that alone will not guarantee him further outings for United. While it is easier to fault the youngster, his partner endured an awkward afternoon, capped by a booking for dissent; clearly the Premier League's Respect agenda passed Rooney by. His growing sense of irritation is apparent when he becomes increasingly vocal towards officials, but also when he veers further and further from goal in a bid to make something happen. It is unusual that a forward with 41 goals in his previous two seasons is deemed insufficiently prolific, but then Rooney is judged by different standards to other players. Once again, United could have benefited from seeing him in the penalty box more often.

Both sides were short of strikers, but Newcastle's - Obafemi Martins - outperformed his Manchester United counterparts. The Nigerian's speed is ideally suited to a counter-attacking game plan and his elusiveness made it awkward to track him. His goal came from a huge leap to convert Danny Guthrie's corner.

Manchester United promptly levelled with Darren Fletcher turning in a Ryan Giggs cross, but though Nemanja Vidic hit the bar, the anticipated onslaught never materialised.

'I've not got too many complaints,' added Ferguson. 'We've done our best, we were the better team but we didn't make it count in the second half. Without proper balance in terms of width, it was a struggle and we never looked like breaking them down. It's not the result we wanted, but there's 37 games left so it's not a disaster.'

Newcastle have not won at Old Trafford since 1972 when Ferguson was a Dunfermline striker. They had their opportunities, however, Martins drilling a shot just wide and heading narrowly over.

'I thought we thoroughly deserved a point,' said Kevin Keegan. 'We gave a really good account of ourselves. We got a performance from everybody. I think we had a bit more pace than them, perhaps because of the players they had missing.'

It was an interesting assertion, given Newcastle looked painfully slow at times last season. They also benefited from reinforcing their spine. Newcastle often look like they could benefit from an injection of steel from the Tyne Bridge, but this was not one of those occasions. Given was defiance personified, but this was a rare afternoon when it was not an oxymoron to mention Newcastle United and good defending in the same sentence.

Frazier Campbell, Steven Taylor
GettyImages / AndrewYatesFrazier Campbell has been tracked by Hull.

As is necessary if you model your haircut on Kevin Keegan circa 1979, there was no shortage of confidence from Fabricio Coloccini. The the £9million central defender's first contribution was to upend Campbell clumsily, though his subsequent improvement suggested the policy of recruiting Spain-based Argentines might prove one of Newcastle's wiser decisions.

The other, Jonas Gutierrez, displayed an ungainly but effective running style and an ability to get beyond his markers on an auspicious debut. Spiderman, as befits a player with a superhero's nickname, looks a source of entertainment.

'He's fantastic. I really like him,' added Keegan, who wants three more additions. 'With Dennis Wise, [vice-president [player recruitment]], Tony Jimenez and [chairman] Derek Llambias, despite what everyone thinks, we're working really hard to get good signings in.' Chairman Mike Ashley has promised an eye-catching buy, but Keegan said: 'I don't know who the 'wow' signing is. It's a shame he told the corporate members before he let me and Terry Mac [McDermott] know.'

Confusing as Newcastle's structure remains, this was a day when no matter who signed whom or how, the decision-making seemed strangely sensible.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Shay Given - Keegan nominated the debutant Danny Guthrie, but Given's goalkeeping, not for the first time, was invaluable for Newcastle. Besides Campbell, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and team-mate Habib Beye could all testify to his agility.

• MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Rooney and Scholes apart, they effectively ended with a reserve team midfield and forward line, lacking two of the three main forwards, three of their best quartet of central midfielders and all four preferred wingers. Nonetheless, the lack of another specialist striker may have told.

• NEWCASTLE VERDICT: Martins' success as a lone striker raises the question of what Keegan does when Michael Owen and Mark Viduka are fit again. At least the combination of Coloccini and Steven Taylor at the back is unlikely to be disrupted. 'For the next five years that could be the central [defensive] partnership,' said Keegan, no stranger to bold predictions.

• INJURY NEWS: Michael Carrick is out of the England squad with an ankle injury that will rule him out for two weeks. Ryan Giggs came off with a hamstring problem.

• GONE FOR A BARTON: Finding his way through the Newcastle fans before kick-off, your observer was surprised to see the choice of name and number on one shirt. Surely he must be the only supporter to opt for No. 7 and Barton.


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