Manchester United Overcome Mistakes, Edge Newcastle in EPL Boxing Day Classic

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Manchester United Overcome Mistakes, Edge Newcastle in EPL Boxing Day Classic
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Manchester United's heart-stopping victory over Newcastle United in the English Premier League on Boxing Day served as an exercise in enlightening contradiction.

The match itself, which ended 4-3 in favor of United, was a sloppy mess, something like a game of slapsies. Or it was a classic.

Both teams attacked admirably in a stunning show of offensive verve. But without a late winner, a referee's decision might have served as the main talking point.

Mike Dean, for that matter, is a courageous genius, willing and able to withstand Fergie's fury. Or else he's an idiot.

Newcastle, meanwhile, no longer benefit from the element of surprise. But on Wednesday, Alan Pardew's players came agonizingly close to stunning the league leaders.

Topping the table at Christmas is no guarantee of glory come spring. But a winter day's worth of positive results means Sir Alex Ferguson's men must fancy their chances.

Manchester United, currently England's best team, cannot stop scoring. They also can't defend.

And, most illuminating of all: United are either a bad great team or a great bad one. There really is no in between.

It all depends on the day, and maybe on which team shows up.

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Three times Newcastle took the lead at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Three times United equalized. Finally, and almost inevitably, United took their only lead with Chicharito's stoppage-time winner.

With that (and with Manchester City's latest loss at Sunderland), United suddenly held a seven-point lead atop the world's most exciting league. All without ever looking like the best team in their own stadium.

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No matter. Along the way, individual brilliance and an almost indefinable gestalt enabled the improbable. Michael Carrick organized the fight back from midfield. Robin van Persie scored once more, and once more made it count with a crucial equalizer.

And Javier Hernandez, so often so effective in late-game situations, popped up with the stoppage-time winner after missing multiple chances throughout a rare 90-minute run-out.

Altogether, the result was a dramatic win, probably the match of the Premier League season so far and perhaps a turning point in the title race.

United started without Wayne Rooney (injured in Christmas Day training) and began the match without a striker on the bench. His absence could be no excuse, though, no matter how influential he may be.

Newcastle played without Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, a trio that played a vital role in the Magpies' surprising run to fifth place last season. Besides, United's problems came at the other end of the pitch.

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Dean's decision to award Newcastle's second goal was and will remain controversial. But whether or not it was the right call, United obviously had the wrong defensive combination for Newcastle's peppy, confident attack.

The dangerous Demba Ba set up Newcastle's first in the fourth minute with a long-range shot that left United keeper David de Gea unaccountably bamboozled. James Perch popped up to poke home the rebound, scoring for the first time in nearly three years.

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It was the 11th time United had fallen behind in the league this season and the fifth time at home. Statistics like those will worry Fergie, as will the way his team allowed Newcastle plenty of space in the attacking third to pick apart United's defense.

Newcastle's second goal was the controversial one, scored by Jonny Evans on his own net and assisted by Papiss Cisse's offside positioning. It's possible to agree with, disagree with or crack wise about the decision, but it's impossible to deny that United's defense lacked focus and consistency.

Even if Cisse had been active in his offside position—and it's probably true that he was—the more important fact was that United simply made too many mistakes throughout the match. And while Ferguson might have had an argument to make about Dean’s controversial decision, he should have made it after the match and inside the confines of the rules—not out on the pitch and all over the touchline.

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None of that mattered by full time. United equalized a second time and, after Cisse's strike, a third. Chicharito won it with time to spare, and United claimed their 24th point from a losing position—a total that, taken alone, would place the Red Devils ahead of nine Premier League rivals.

And yet, that nagging notion remains. Either this is a great team that sometimes plays poorly, or this is a deeply flawed team that often plays heroically. Maybe, though, it's a little of both.

Questions—and contradictions—do indeed plague this team. Fortunately for Fergie, few if any English teams seem capable of asking the right ones.

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