Edinson Cavani came off the bench to get Manchester United out of jail at Newcastle on a night when they were branded “a bunch of whinge-bags” by former defender Gary Neville.
The Uruguay international’s 71st-minute equaliser at St James’ Park salvaged a 1-1 draw after Allan Saint-Maximin’s early strike had threatened to hand the struggling Magpies just their second Premier League win of the season.
Television pundit Neville delivered a withering half-time verdict on the visitors’ attitude, and had it not been for the woodwork and a stunning late save from David De Gea, they would have headed back across the Pennines empty-handed after their first outing in 16 days.
They were spectacularly wasteful in possession for much of the game and decidedly shaky at the back to leave the Magpies, playing their fourth game in 16 days, in with a genuine chance of victory to the death.
Both sides were depleted by positive Covid-19 tests – Victor Lindelof was one of those to miss out as a result – and it was Eddie Howe’s men who made the brighter start.
They got their reward within seven minutes when Sean Longstaff robbed Varane and fed Saint-Maximin and he cut inside Diogo Dalot and Harry Maguire before guiding a right-foot shot past the helpless De Gea.
United’s attempts to force their way back into the game were repeatedly thwarted by their lack of care in possession and Joelinton sent De Gea sprawling across his goal with a curling 12th-minute effort which sailed just wide.
However with Fred and Bruno Fernandes increasingly influential, the Magpies found themselves having to defend deep and in numbers while attempting to strike on the counter.
Cristiano Ronaldo only just failed to reach Mason Greenwood’s 17th-minute cross with Newcastle stretched, but De Gea had to beat away Jonjo Shelvey’s stinging drive after he had run from halfway six minutes later.
The precision which had eluded the visitors returned to their game as Greenwood and Marcus Rashford got the bit between their teeth, but too often their final ball lacked the required quality.
In addition, their defensive fragility – Harry Maguire was enduring a difficult evening – simply served to encourage the home side and Callum Wilson saw a 38th-minute strike correctly ruled out for offside after a mazy Saint-Maximin run.
Martin Dubravka had to race from his line to beat Greenwood to Fernandes’ clever free-kick, but Howe’s men made it to the break with their lead intact.
Ralf Rangnick sent on Jadon Sancho and Cavani for Fred and Greenwood as the second half got under way, but it took a superb reaction save by De Gea to keep out Saint-Maximin’s 47th-minute effort from point-blank range.
However, Dubravka had to be equally resilient to repel Rashford’s dipping, swerving shot and was relieved to see efforts from Ronaldo and Cavani fly harmlessly wide, with the visitors in far more menacing mood.
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 27, 2021
De Gea repelled Ryan Fraser’s 63rd-minute strike after Joelinton had surged upfield, and United dragged themselves back into it with 19 minutes remaining when Cavani’s initial shot from Dalot’s cross was blocked by Fabian Schar, but he managed to poke the rebound past Dubravka.
Newcastle were denied victory at the death when Jacob Murphy’s shot came back off the upright and Miguel Almiron’s follow-up was brilliantly saved by De Gea.