Stuttering United held by Toon
Ryan Giggs squandered the best chance to give the visitors a crucial win when he shot wide with the goal at his mercy after being picked out by Patrice Evra with 69 minutes gone to let two points slip from the leaders' grasp. Sir Alex Ferguson's men were denied on two occasions before the break by fine saves from the injured Steve Harper's replacement, Tim Krul, but even the return of Wayne Rooney from suspension could not inspire United to victory on a night when the Magpies fought tooth and nail in front of an appreciative crowd of 49,025. United did, however, extend their lead over second-placed Arsenal, who could only draw at home to Liverpool on Sunday, and it seems only a matter of time before they clinch the crown for the 19th time. The draw took Newcastle's total for the season to 40-point mark as they climbed back into ninth and edged closer to retaining their top-flight status. It might have been even better had referee Lee Probert agreed with Peter Lovenkrands that he had been tripped by Anderson inside the penalty area, although Hernandez was similarly aggrieved to be booked for diving as he was challenged by Danny Simpson in injury time. The days when Newcastle competed with United both on the pitch over 90 minutes and over the season seem a distant memory, and Ferguson's men arrived on Tyneside having not lost a league game to the Magpies in 17 attempts dating back to September 2001. They did so still smarting from their FA Cup semi-final exit at the hands of arch-rivals City and determined to make amends by extending their lead at the top of the table. But Alan Pardew had promised that his team, who started the night still not assured of their place in next season's top flight, would give United a game, and in the opening 45 minutes they certainly did that. The visitors, who did not include Rio Ferdinand or the sick Dimitar Berbatov among their 18 at St James' Park, tested Krul after just two minutes when he was forced to block Hernandez's effort, and the Dutchman was delighted to see full-back Jose Enrique get his body into the line of the Mexican's goal-bound injury-time shot. But in the meantime, the Magpies gave as good as they got in an entertaining first-half during which they too created chances. Chris Smalling got enough on Jonas Gutierrez's fifth-minute attempt to deflect it around the post, and Edwin van der Sar had to save from Shola Ameobi, Lovenkrands and Cheik Tiote in quick succession. Krul made another fine save from Rooney after he burst through on 19 minutes, although Mr Probert clearly did not spot his intervention as he awarded only a goal-kick. United gradually eased into full flow with the movement of the Rooney and Hernandez and Nani's pace causing problems for Newcastle, who dropped ever deeper as the half wore on. However, they might have taken the lead a minute before the break when Joey Barton picked out Lovenkrands inside the penalty area with a teasing right-wing cross. The Dane did not realise how much time he had and may have been surprised that the ball reached him at all, but he planted his header harmlessly wide. Ferguson's players returned long before their Magpies counterparts and resumed in determined fashion as they forced a series of corners which the home side managed to repel, but often at full stretch. Krul was grateful to see Giggs head straight at him from Nani's 51st-minute cross, although Ameobi was unable to trouble Van der Sar any further with a looping effort seconds later. Mike Williamson only just prevented Hernandez from meeting Giggs' 55th-minute cross with a prodigious leap and Nani blazed high and wide seconds later as the pressure mounted. Lovenkrands was convinced he should have been awarded a 58th-minute penalty for Anderson's challenge on him, but Mr Probert, who had earlier turned down Nani's claims against Gutierrez, was similarly unmoved. The Dane headed just over after the visitors struggled to clear Barton's 61st-minute free-kick, but United were starting to up the tempo to repeatedly stretch their hosts once again. They should have been in front with 69 minutes gone when Evra carved his way into the box to set up Giggs, but the veteran midfielder contrived to fire wide. Nani and Rooney both went close from distance as time ran down and Giggs fired wide again two minutes from time. But after Hernandez's yellow card, Rooney headed wide from substitute Antonio Valencia's injury-time cross as Newcastle managed to hold out.