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Man Utd look unstoppable

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Phil McNulty | 07:17 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

Manchester United gave Chelsea and Liverpool an inch - then took a crucial, hard mile towards retaining the Premier League title.

For 11 minutes all the conditions that traditionally constitute a surprise were in place as Newcastle's own fight for survival threatened to stir the mix at the top end of the table.

The unwelcoming Tyneside night. The surface made treacherous by a hailstorm. The desperate opposition clinging to the gift of an early Peter Lovenkrands goal courtesy of an awful error by Manchester United's record-breaking goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.

It was not just Newcastle United who could sense the shock - the anticipation would have been just as keenly felt by Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink and Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez as they wait desperately for a crack to appear in Manchester United's armour.

But as Manchester United pulled away from St James' Park and out of a freezing Newcastle, they left broken dreams behind them.

Newcastle's hopes of easing their relegation fears at Manchester United's expense, buoyed by Lovenkrands' goal and a first half performance that transported the home crowd out of trepidation and into optimism, were dashed by Wayne Rooney's equaliser and Dimitar Berbatov's winner.

And Hiddink and Benitez, who may have detected the smallest shaft of light after wins on Tuesday, saw it swiftly snuffed out by another Manchester United victory.

Wayne Rooney

The talk in the corridors of St James' Park afterwards was of "focus", courtesy of Rooney, plus a fine effort in diplomacy from Newcastle coach Chris Hughton, deputising for manager Joe Kinnear as he recovers from heart surgery.

Hughton claimed Manchester United would be "pushed all the way", although he did eventually admit it would be tough for anyone to catch the leaders.

But the reality was that this was another crucial step forward by Manchester United - another three points collected, another psychological blow to the chasing pack. All achieved without even having their best night at the office.

Indeed, for 30 minutes Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins ran Manchester United's defence ragged. And if he had just managed to convert a near post finish with Newcastle leading 1-0, Hiddink and Benitez would have had real cause for hope and the Toon Army would not be looking over their shoulders quite so anxiously.

Normal service was shortly resumed, however, as Manchester United survived injury-hit Newcastle's best shots and returned their own to run out winners.

The soundbites may continue, but it would take a collapse of increasingly unthinkable proportions to stop the crown heading to Old Trafford once more. Manchester United could conceivably lose three more league games this season and still win the title.

Can you seriously see that happening? No - neither can I.

And there was a cameo after Berbatov scored Manchester United's winner that revealed much about why they are heading - barring an unlikely sequence of defeats - for another Premier League title.

Van der Sar, hardly shame-faced but certainly embarrassed by his error, raced to the halfway line to congratulate Rooney for his part in the build-up to the goal - a long pass played from an unlikely position of auxiliary central defender.

The goalkeeper's grateful thanks to the team-mate who had bailed him out was obvious for all to see.

It summed up the Manchester United psyche. It says there is usually someone around to produce the goods. If Van der Sar errs, then Rooney will deliver at the other end, or Berbatov, or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Old Trafford may have its own version of the Galacticos, but it is under-pinned by a serious sense of team fostered by Ferguson.

Manchester United's last two league wins, against Blackburn and here against Newcastle, have been scratchy affairs - the key fact is that they both ended up with job done.

It has been a crucial difference between Manchester United and their rivals. They have been undone by too many draws.

And it was achieved in the face of a serious challenge from Newcastle, who must take heart from so many aspects of this display as they face a hazardous stretch of fixtures, starting with Hull away on 14 March before home games with Arsenal and Chelsea and a trip to Stoke City.

Early optimism punctured, further wind was taken out of their sails as news of Hull's last-minute winner at Fulham filtered through to St James' Park - throw in wins for Spurs and Stoke, plus a point for Blackburn and it was hardly a great night on the Toon.

Newcastle will need fighting spirit, but preferably not the sort offered by Steven Taylor in his unseemly spat with Ronaldo on the stroke of half-time.

Taylor swung his arm at Ronaldo, flattening the Manchester United winger, and he still had enough energy left over to clatter into Michael Carrick.

Everyone has raised an eyebrow, occasionally even two, at Ronaldo's threatrics, but this does not give defenders carte blanche to launch themselves in his general direction and expect to escape punishment.

It is almost seen as good sport in some quarters, but Taylor was lucky not to have been sent off, although Rio Ferdinand's lengthy intervention was just as needless and word was the spat continued down the tunnel at half-time.

Newcastle's cause would be helped more by the swift return of Michael Owen, who revealed in his programme notes he expects to be fit to face Hull. He is the sort of predator who might have just pinched that crucial second goal Newcastle's brief supremacy demanded.

And, when fit, he will be playing alongside a genuine threat in Martins. The Nigerian may be wayward on occasions, but no-one can question his effort and his pace gave Newcastle a potent point of attack.

Newcastle are in trouble - it cannot be dressed up any other way - but if they have Owen for the remaining weeks of a troubled campaign and play with the same spirit and endeavour as they did here, then I would back them to survive.

Manchester United's next league assignment is the meeting with Liverpool at Old Trafford on 14 March, when they know a win will kill any remaining hopes of the title heading to Anfield stone dead.

They will need to perform better than they did at Newcastle, but Manchester United's ability to grind out this type of result from a below-par performance is always the hallmark of champions.

And after having spirits lifted briefly, it may just have been even more of a blow to Chelsea and Liverpool to see Manchester United come from behind and survive to claim another three points.

Little wonder Manchester United's players and staff cut a group of contented figures as they boarded the coach at the end of an uncomfortable, but ultimately satisfying, night.


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