MANCHESTER UNITED 0 NEWCASTLE 0 AFTER hitting the heights in Europe, Manchester United have been turning in some flat Premiership performances and the trend continued at Old Trafford yesterday when they were deservedly held by a tactically-smart Newcastle United side.
Since qualifying for the round robin stage of the Champions' League, United have won only one of the four fixtures that immediately followed a European game. In the wake of the recent home and away thrashings of Brondby, United have drawn to Derby County and now Newcastle.
``This was a flat performance and it begs the question of games after Europe,'' said Alex Ferguson, United's manager whose team meet Leeds United at home and Tottenham Hotspur away in their forthcoming post-Group D outings.
Jesper Blomqvist, Ferguson's Swedish winger, refused to accept the European argument. ``We shouldn't be tired,'' he said.
Old Trafford's supposedly state-of-the-art pitch hardly helped United's attempts at fluidity with divots soon strewn across the surface.
``We'll be looking into it,'' Ferguson said. The cutting-up problem is apparently caused by too many blue-nose worms.
Rather than dwell on wayward worms or Champions' League exertions, it would be far fairer to credit the hosts' disappointing display to the visitors' energy and expertise.
Newcastle's plan, relying on pace and pressing, was well-conceived and well-executed.
In the centre of his back-four, Ruud Gullit deployed two nimble centre-halves, Nikos Dabizas and Aaron Hughes, to combat the quicksilver movement of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, who had scored 11 times in their previous seven games.
``We made it tactically very difficult for them to play their game,'' Gullit said.
``Newcastle's tactics were terrific,'' Ferguson said. ``They kept us on the back foot. They harried us.
``They pressed the ball really well. For a team who were supposedly struggling, they played with a lot of confidence.''
``For a team that's supposed to be struggling a little bit they played with great confidence.''
``Gullit filled his team with as many quick players as he could and I think they deserve their point although I don't think they created anything.
Gullit used the returning Dietmar Hamann as the forward point of a midfield diamond, a move which served to force Roy Keane deep to stifle the German's runs.
Keane was again outstanding, a redoubtable buffer on which many of Newcastle surges foundered. But even the dynamic Irishman is unable to anchor and charge forward continually.
Keane even had to move to central defence when Ronny Johnsen limped off with a worrying ankle injury.
United's strategy was as per usual, breaking swiftly, using the flanks and looking to the darting feet of Yorke and Cole in and around the box. But too often United were careless in possession or simply thwarted by the black-and-white blanket.
Moments of promise did emerge for both sides.
Paul Dalglish caused problems in the first half, showing pace and purpose.
When Jaap Stam brought Dalglish down, Alan Shearer took a free-kick which Peter Schmeichel, briefly troubled, grasped at the second attempt.
Dalglish even appealed loudly for a penalty after falling under Denis Irwin's challenge.
Steve Dunn, the excellent referee, ruled that any contact was merely shoulder to shoulder.
Dalglish's best moment came in the second half when he forced Schmeichel into a good block.
United were better after the break.
Cole shot over and then David Beckham fired wide after a lovely through-pass by Gary Neville.
Paul Scholes, who had threatened briefly in the first half, was denied at the far-post and then Cole was dispossessed by a diving Shay Given. And that was it.
Newcastle boss Gullit was delighted at the tactical changes he made by bringing in defender Hughes on his 19th birthday, along with midfielder Dietmar Hamann and George Georgiadis, had paid off.
But he said: ``I wanted to win today, I just didn't want to hold them.
``I said after the first half that it would be bad if we played well and didn't get anything.
``I told them to play for the result whatever happens, but I still wanted to win.
``I thought it was a good game and an excellent Newcastle performance. We made it very difficult for them to play their game.
``They couldn't find any holes and that was frustrating for them. We played some excellent football in the first half and created some chances.''
Daily Telegraph, London.