Manchester United reinforce top-four spot as Newcastle left looking over their shoulder

Manchester United’s players celebrate Bruno Fernandes’s penalty

Manchester United’s pursuit of a place in next season’s Champions League remains on course after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side recovered from a sloppy first half to record a hard-fought victory over Newcastle United. Steve Bruce and his players, meanwhile, will be looking over their shoulder.

Allan Saint-Maximin’s spectacular volley appeared to give Newcastle hope of at least a point at Old Trafford, cancelling out Marcus Rashford’s brilliant individualistic opener. Yet the gulf in quality told as the evening wore on with Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes penalty ensuring that United stay in second place, clear of Leicester City on goal difference.

The gap to leaders Manchester City remains in double figures and any faint title aspirations are dwindling but securing a top-four finish is and always has been the priority. On a weekend that had already seen Chelsea and Liverpool drop points, it was imperative that United took advantage. Though unconvincing at times, a win was all that mattered.

What Newcastle would do for three points. This was their eighth defeat in 10 league games. The Premier League relegation battle seemed to be all but settled only a few weeks ago, but they are quickly making it interesting. Bruce’s side are now only three points clear of third-bottom Fulham. Mike Ashley is surely feeling nervous.

Solskjaer was without several key members of his backroom staff after they were forced to self-isolate. Academy figures Nicky Butt and Mark Dempsey were promoted to the first team bench in their place, but the United manager could have used his regular brains trust during an opening 45 minutes when his side struggled for fluency up front and composure at the back.

Marcus Rashford opens the scoring

David de Gea ultimately atoned for failing to punch away a Jonjo Shelvey cross, acrobatically tipping Joelinton’s subsequent effort over the crossbar, but those early jitters spread through his defence. Newcastle were narrowly out-shooting their hosts at the half-hour mark and, if anything, edging a dour contest until Rashford’s moment of individual brilliance.

A nutmeg of Emil Krafth out on the left-hand touchline appeared to have taken Newcastle’s right-back out of the game but foolishly, he recovered and came back for more. Even more foolishly still, he showed Rashford onto his favoured right foot. A quick step inside created just enough room for a shot which crept in at the near post, leaving goalkeeper Karl Darlow red faced.

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It was much more than United deserved but Newcastle would quickly level. Maguire had strode forward out from the back to set up Rashford for the breakthrough yet was at fault for the equaliser six minutes later, aimlessly heading Joe Willock’s cross up into the air inside his own penalty area. The ball dropped onto Saint-Maximin’s boot and an exquisite volley into the roof of the net beat De Gea all ends up.

At that stage, it was easy to draw parallels between this stale, uninspiring United performance and those against Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion in recent weeks. Once again, the attack looked so bereft of imagination against a low block that their only route to a second goal was either another piece of individual excellence or a mistake by their opponents.

Newcastle may have held onto a valuable point had they not left James unmarked at the far post as the hour mark approached. Nemanja Matic spotted him after turning two defenders on the left-hand edge of the penalty area and played a square pass which Fernandes helped on its way. James only had to keep his cool and did, guiding a finish past Darlow for his third goal in as many appearances.

With their lead restored, Solskjaer’s side did not make the same mistakes twice and began to exert a greater degree of control over proceedings. Newcastle were successfully neutered and the result was put beyond all doubt when Rashford won a penalty under a challenge from Willock. Fernandes’ sole miss from the spot in a United shirt was at St James’ Park in this season’s reverse fixture. This time, Darlow was beaten like all the others.

Solskjaer saw fit to hand a senior debut to the Newcastle-born, 17-year-old academy starlet Shola Shoretire in the closing stages. It was a mark of how comfortable his side now were, against a Newcastle outfit who had faded badly. Their hopes of mid-table safety and a relatively stress-free end to the campaign are similarly diminishing.

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