Manchester United 3 Newcastle United 0

YOU should never judge a book by its cover and you should never judge a football team on its first game of the season, but Newcastle United will already know they have a long, hard season ahead of them.

YOU should never judge a book by its cover and you should never judge a football team on its first game of the season, but Newcastle United will already know they have a long, hard season ahead of them.

Newcastle fans have been waiting for this moment for 449 days. Plenty of time for hope to build and 90 minutes for it to coming crashing back to Earth.

The bullies of the Championship have moved up a level, and the Premier League playground is full of bigger boys than them.

A bright start from the men in black and white stripes could not disguise the problems Chris Hughton’s side face this season, just as a bench full of kids and fringe players from last term cannot hide the lack of strength in depth in a squad which still desperately needs to be strengthened before the close of the transfer window.

Now we have dispensed with the phoney war of pre-season and the constant flood of predictions from ex-pros, part-time experts and shameless self-publicists, it is time for cold hard realism to take a grip of expectation levels.

Newcastle United are in a struggle for survival this season, but it is a struggle they are both good enough and brave enough to win.

Whether they were ever good enough to win here is another matter entirely.

Bravery, alone, is rarely enough to bridge a gulf in class as wide as this. Newcastle United have not won at Old Trafford since 1972, and only the blindly optimistic ever truly believed that record would change last night.

For all of the tradition and the relatively recent history of Champions League contenders, Newcastle may be in the same league as Manchester United again but they are not at the same level.

Like every new team promoted to the top flight, Newcastle did not expect to take anything from an away game at Old Trafford, just as they will not when they go to any of the top five or six teams in the country.

On occasions like this a point is a bonus, a win an unimaginable treat.

We should be clear now, Newcastle will not stay up on the back of games against the aristocrats of the English game, they will survive by preying on the weak and needy. Their survival is likely to depend on how they perform against those who are also fighting for their Premier League lives, not those who are looking to be crowned champions again.

Newcastle gave a good enough account of themselves to suggest they are solid enough to hold their own at this level and, had Andy Carroll not put a free header wide from Joey Barton’s corner after ten minutes, they may well have had something to crank up the frustration levels inside this grand stadium.

Instead, for all of the bright runs of Wayne Routledge, the strength and power of Carroll and the resilience of Alan Smith, Newcastle gradually found they were being over-ran.

For a while the defence held firm, with Smith offering vital protection in front of them.

A couple of scuffed shots from Wayne Rooney did nothing to alarm Steve Harper, but the pressure was growing and eventually it told. Paul Scholes is never the sort of player you want to give time and space to pick out a pass and, after Jonas had lost possession, he played a carefully weighted through ball which Jose Enrique could only help into the path of Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian’s finish was low, hard and Harper did not stand a chance. A solitary goal was not a disaster, but a second before half-time suggested the evening might turn into one, as Nani and Fabrice Evra linked down the left before Rooney helped the cross on to Darren Fletcher who was left with a simple finish from six yards.

The floodgates, though, did not open and Newcastle did continue to offer a sporadic attacking threat, Carroll showing his inexperience when he elected to shoot from 20 yards when he had three teammates up in support.

Manchester United have been picking teams off on the counter-attack for a generation and they almost caught Newcastle out immediately as James Perch and the highly impressive Mike Williamson just about cleared the danger before Berbatov poked the ball wide from a lovely flicked pass from Scholes.

Berbatov also sent an acrobatic volley wide when well placed, but Manchester United were happy with their advantage, safe in the knowledge that, even when Newcastle ventured into their half, they did not have the guile or the numbers to crack them open at the back.

Perhaps Newcastle best hope was from set-pieces but, just as Carroll failed to direct a header on target from a corner in the first half, so too did substitute Shola Ameobi with just over ten minutes remaining.

Manchester United have too much quality to make the same mistakes and their third goal eventually came when veteran Ryan Giggs planted a perfect volley into the bottom corner from another brilliant Scholes pass.

It was a demoralising moment for the Magpies, but there was enough in their effort to draw warm applause from the travelling faithful.

Played one, lost one, but there are more realistic challenges ahead for this to do anything to dampen early-season enthusiasm.

 

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