Marcus Rashford played a key role in a win over struggling Newcastle as Manchester United returned to second place in the Premier League.
The England striker helped the hosts overcome a stuttering start when he lashed in an 18th goal of the season by beating Karl Darlow at the near post after 30 minutes.
Allan Saint-Maximin then scored a deserved equaliser with his first goal since coming back from a two-month absence caused by coronavirus symptoms, slamming in after Harry Maguire failed to clear.
The Newcastle winger threatened again early in the second half, but the game turned after 57 minutes when Daniel James re-established the lead.
That led to the visitors’ confidence draining away, with Rashford then earning a penalty as he drew a foul from Joe Willock before Bruno Fernandes knocked in his 22nd goal of the season.
Defeat for Steve Bruce’s side was an eighth in 10 Premier League games, leaving them three points above the drop zone – and a relegation scrap with Fulham is now set to ensue.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, it was only a second win in six league matches, and a welcome victory after a draw at West Brom last weekend.
But they remain 10 points behind leaders Manchester City, who beat Arsenal earlier on Sunday.
Solskjaer’s side grind through gears
On the face of it, this looked as if it would be a routine win for the hosts over a team fighting for Premier League survival.
But although Solskjaer insisted that his team had “found themselves a little bit” after the 4-0 win over Real Sociedad in the Europa League on Thursday, there were still signs here of the concerns that have plagued his team for much of the season.
Manchester United were slow to start and jittery in defence. David de Gea was called into action early on and almost gifted Newcastle a goal with a poor backpass. Fernandes, normally their talisman, was quiet for much of the game before a trademark penalty.
But in contrast to Newcastle, Solskjaer’s side have matchwinners all over the pitch. When they went ahead, it was from their first proper chance.
Rashford skipped past Emil Krafth on the touchline, before cutting inside and unleashing a fierce shot, although Darlow should have stopped his near-post effort.
The lead only lasted six minutes, however, as a short corner was played to Willock and his cross was half-headed away by Maguire, allowing Saint-Maximin to fire in.
The home side – missing the injured Scott McTominay – also started the second period quietly, with Solskjaer’s concern evident on the touchline, before James gave them breathing space.
The Welsh winger, who scored in midweek, was rewarded with his first Premier League start since 26 December and lashed past Darlow at his near post again. As Newcastle retreated, the hosts moved up the gears before Fernandes sealed victory.
It was not a vintage display, but it did not need to be as Solskjaer’s side finally found their rhythm, allowing them to hand a debut to 17-year-old Shola Shoretire as they extended their run to one defeat in 19 Premier League games.
Newcastle confidence drains as relegation battle begins
If Bruce did not regard his team as being a relegation battle before this week, then they certainly are now.
Fulham’s seven-point yield in the past week means the 10-point gap between Newcastle and the relegation zone – as it was two weeks ago – now stands at three.
Bruce’s side have shown an upturn in form in recent weeks, with wins over Everton and Southampton, but this game underlined the value of absent top scorer Callum Wilson, who is set to be out for another month with a hamstring injury.
It was tempting to wonder whether Wilson would have profited from Newcastle’s early chances. Joelinton looked hesitant when there were several early opportunities to go ahead. Jonjoe Shelvey also skied over.
Having gone behind, though, at least Newcastle showed a response. Saint-Maximin, who was struck down by coronavirus symptoms for most of December and January, looked sharp and tested De Gea before he scored.
His emotional celebration hinted at the difficulties he has been through this season, and he could have put the visitors ahead when he fired at De Gea following a well-worked free-kick routine.
But James’ goal and the manner of it undermined all their hard work. When the ball was played across their box by Nemanja Matic, Jamal Lewis failed to clear as Fernandes got a vital touch and Darlow was beaten at the near post again.
Once Willock failed to keep his composure as Rashford danced into the penalty area, conceding a penalty, there was no way back from Bruce’s side.
Perhaps a win at Old Trafford was not to be expected, but with games against Wolves, West Brom, Aston Villa and Brighton to come, Newcastle will need to pick up points quickly.
Goal-hungry Man Utd – the key stats
- Manchester United have scored 53 goals in 25 games in the Premier League this term – their most at this stage of a top-flight campaign since the 2012-13 season (60), which was the last time they won the title.
- Newcastle have lost each of their past 21 away games against opponents starting the day in the Premier League’s top three, in a run dating back to February 2012.
- Marcus Rashford’s opener for Manchester United was his 40th goal in all competitions since the beginning of last season, with only Raheem Sterling (44), Harry Kane (45) and Mohamed Salah (47) managing more among all Premier League players.
- Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes (15 goals, 10 assists) is the third player within Europe’s top five leagues this season to reach double figures for both goals and assists in league matches, alongside Harry Kane (13 goals, 11 assists) and Thomas Muller (10 goals, 10 assists).
- Daniel James has scored five goals in 13 games for Manchester United this season, one more than he managed in 46 games across all competitions last season.
- Only Callum Wilson (15) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals than Allan Saint-Maximin for Newcastle this season (five – two goals, three assists), despite this only being the Frenchman’s 11th start in the competition this term.
Manchester United face Real Sociedad in the second leg of their last 32 Europa League last-32 tie with a 4-0 lead on Thursday (20:00 GMT) before travelling to Chelsea next Sunday in the Premier League (16:30).
Newcastle host Wolves in the Premier League next Saturday (20:00).