Match analysis: Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 4
FOR all of Manchester United's problems this season, David Moyes was able to make eight changes to his preferred starting line-up and still secure a comprehensive win on Tyneside. If only Alan Pardew could enjoy such a luxury.
Moyes is far from satisfied with his team sitting sixth in early April during his first season in charge, yet his Newcastle United counterpart would love to be in a similar position.
These are, once more, frustrating times at St James' Park and a Juan Mata inspired Manchester United increased the tension ahead of the final five matches of the campaign. Newcastle may well be safe, but the natives are far from happy. They are getting more and more restless.
Since outclassing Stoke City on Boxing Day, Newcastle have taken just 13 points from a possible 45, scored just nine goals in 15 league games and dumped out of the FA Cup at the very first attempt in January by Cardiff City.
Had the season started on New Year's Day, Newcastle would be deep in relegation trouble and the concerns among supporters are that the necessary adjustments to the playing staff will not be made in the summer either.
Before Newcastle get to that stage, they need to try to find a way of repairing damaged confidence and morale after the latest defeat, albeit to an effective Manchester United side lacking both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.
“I am not baffled by our slump,” said Pardew. “There is some explanation in losing key players but we do need to get a performance where something breaks for us.
“It is a tough run for us. I think when you are not really threatening the goal like we aren’t at the moment, it puts a lot of pressure on your own back four and midfield and teams grow in confidence against us, thinking you are not going to score. It is the threat we need to get back in our team.”
Newcastle started brightly enough against Manchester United, with Papiss Cisse going close on a couple of occasions. He forced goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard in to a flying one-handed save in the first half.
But after Juan Mata had curled a sublime free-kick inside Rob Elliot's top left corner six minutes before the break, there was simply no way back for Newcastle.
“It would have lifted everyone had we got the first goal, but when you concede the first goal in the Premier League, it is a blow,” said Pardew.
“The timing of their first goal was difficult for us. I feared the worst and there was an unjust feeling to it because there had been an offside moments before not given. That was a double blow for us.”
There were claims from Newcastle that Belgian Marouane Fellaini should have been red carded for an elbow on Dan Gosling, but he got away with a warning for careless arms from referee Kevin Friend.
And the magical Mata added a second four minutes after the restart. After Fabricio Coloccini had ridiculously misjudged a chest pass to Massadio Haidara, the Spaniard brilliantly rounded Coloccini before applying the finish after Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez had combined down the right.
Newcastle fans became more restless from there on in, not helped by some of Pardew's decisions such as playing the more centrally minded Vurnon Anita on the right ahead of the creative Hatem Ben Arfa.
Ben Arfa is clearly no longer wanted by his manager but, regardless of poor work-rate stats, he was without doubt the most capable man of creating something among the match-day 18.
When he was eventually introduced around the hour mark the volatile Frenchman did not look in the sort of mood to cause the Premier League champions problems and just moments later Newcastle fell three behind.
Kagawa was again involved, this time rolling a pass towards the near post for Hernandez to nip in ahead of Mike Williamson to convert.
HIGH KICKS: Newcastle’s Cheik Tiote on the receiving end of Javier Hernandez’s boot on Saturday
And then the fourth and final goal – the 11th conceded in the last three games by the Magpies – arrived in stoppage time. With black and white shirts going through the motions, Adnan Januzaj burst in to the box to meet a clever back heel from Mata with a low finish beyond Elliot.
Pardew said: “We have played quality opposition, no doubt about that. But we have a catch-22 when we are committing players to try to get that goal and are getting a bit loose.
“We need to really tighten up at Stoke next weekend for sure. But the emphasis is on us at home and we knew we had to come out and try to show some ambition in the game. We need to improve in every way.”
Improvement is exactly what Manchester United are showing signs of. It might have arrived too late to close the gap to the Champions League places, but Moyes thinks there are more and more reasons for his team's fans to be optimistic ahead of this Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg with Bayern Munich.
“We have got a bit of momentum though not quite as much as we would like to have,” said Moyes, who remains unsure with Rooney will have recovered from a toe problem to face Bayern.
“We would have liked to be in a much stronger position but I thought this performance was good.
“It is a completely different game we have now. A tough, tough game no doubt about that, but we go there knowing we have to try to get some form of result on the night to get us through.”
If only Newcastle had something exciting to focus on.