Manchester United could earn European safety net at frail Newcastle’s cost but big jobs ahead for both

by danellefurnell4

It’s just as well that Chelsea now look set to take at least sixth place and thus close the doors on what will probably be the Premier League’s final Europa League slot. On this evidence, we’re not sure we want either of these teams representing England any higher than the Conference League. Think of the coefficient!

It is damning with faint praise in the extreme to say that Manchester United showed signs of improvement here, but they did just enough to get past an attack-minded but frail Newcastle United and secure a result that offers only the hope of sneaking out a safety net, given the result down in Brighton.

Manchester United did just enough to overcome Newcastle in vain

The 3-2 scoreline may give the impression of a thriller, but in fact it was just a bit of a mess. This game was about as convincing a battle for a prosperous future in Europe as the ‘remain’ campaign. The opening exchanges – and section of the later action – were League One standard from both sides, with a lot of running about after the ball punctuated by needlessly wayward passing, miscontrols, and an overall lack of ideas.

Manchester United were the first side to at least step it up to Championship quality, finding joy with balls over the top – invariably from the excellent, returning Bruno Fernandes – and some smart work from the wings before finally taking the lead.

But they owed an awful lot to the opposition for it. Newcastle’s defending was absolutely abysmal, with Kieran Trippier seemingly having missed a meeting about how best to work an offside trap. Kobbie Mainoo had time to control the ball, give Martin Dubravka the eyes, check his emails, dash off the pitch for a quick wee, and then return to put the ball past the Newcastle goalkeeper.

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After remembering they were playing a football match, Newcastle began to pose more of a threat, with Anthony Gordon having a credible penalty shout turned down after exploiting a heavy Sofyan Amrabat touch towards his own goal.

Dan Burn then had a header from a tight angle just as narrowly cleared off the line by Casemiro, while no such heroics were required when an unmarked Bruno Guimaraes put a first header well off target when he should at least have tested Andre Onana.

That better final 15 minutes of the first half should have been a warning for the hosts, but they came out for the second half playing their worst football of the night. Three times in four minutes straight from the break, they took awful touches in their own third to gift the ball to Newcastle.

They did not get away with it the third time, with Amrabat this time culpable for cheaply ceding possession before Jacob Murphy put in an inch-perfect cross for a deserving Gordon to slide in and poke into the net.

That was about the only time Gordon got what he needed from his teammates, though. The winger was getting past his man and into the box entirely at his leisure, but consistently saw his creations go to ruin: Alexander Isak allowing Casemiro to get back and block after an all-too-easy counter attack, then Miguel Almiron not quite able to reach a tantalising ball across the face of goal.

The full cost of that was brought home to Newcastle as Amad thrashed home his first-ever Premier League goal after going completely free off a poorly defended corner – a lovely hit that he should not have been allowed the chance to get away.

Rasmus Hojlund, saved for reasons of freshness like an unopened packet of hot dog buns before a bank holiday barbecue, then came off the bench and scored off his first touch, and again Newcastle had been altogether too casual at the back: Fernandes was allowed to literally walk the ball to the edge of the box before finding the substitute to smash home.

Lewis Hall pulled one back with a lovely, bending long-range strike in injury time, but that was to be a mere consolation.

That’s Newcastle all over, though, isn’t it? This is the 11th time this season they have conceded three goals or more in a Premier League game, yet their goal difference is good enough that they remain in with a prayer of pipping Chelsea to sixth should Eddie Howe’s former club Bournemouth do them a favour on Sunday.

With a better defence and more tidiness in midfield, they could really be something, but seventh at best would feel about right for a Newcastle squad stuck between stars they can build their future around and mid-table players who no longer suit their ambitions.

The same can very much be said about their opponents, albeit they have met in the middle on opposite trajectories over the past few years.

If Erik ten Hag’s side had not been so deeply deficient elsewhere this season, this victory might have put them in with a shout of having a Europa League place on the line from their final league game. Instead, even this win means they have to win the FA Cup to claim a Europa League place.

That minor miracle could, in turn, be a minor nightmare for Newcastle, as it would mean seventh place would keep the Geordies out of Europe altogether – and that’s if Man Utd don’t overtake them on the final day to earn the safety net of a Conference League place for themselves before going to Wembley.

Ten Hag took to the pitch after the game to try and rally the fans before that Wembley showdown against their cross-city rivals, but you suspect they are going to need a literal 12th man to get that done. Manchester City simply will not be as easy pickings as they were served up here.

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