Having watched their main rivals for the Premier League title run in a 6-0 victory at the weekend, Manchester United responded to Chelsea with a win of their own that was every bit as comfortable.
Newly-promoted Newcastle were the visitors to Old Trafford on Monday night but, aside from when Andy Carroll headed just wide from a corner, the Magpies never made a contest out of the game. United had to be patient to earn their opening goal through Dimitar Berbatov, but once in front they put on a masterclass of controlled possession. The six goals scored by Chelsea may look more emphatic on paper, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s team could have easily matched it with a little more willingness to shoot and a bit more precision in front of goal from Berbatov. United provide the middle ground between the ruthlessness of Chelsea and the desire to score the perfect goal that is characteristic of Arsenal, and that little bit of extra finesse and subtlety compared to the Blues might just make the Red Devils more adaptable to different opposition than the reigning champions.
Berbatov could, and probably should, have had a hat-trick but Ferguson will be delighted with the change in demeanour from his forward. Too often in the past, the Bulgarian has appeared to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, looking disillusioned when missing chances and offering only nonchalant celebrations when finding the back of the net. The team celebration of his Community Shield goal eight days earlier has been attributed to United players publically showing critics of Berbatov that they value his contribution, but the oft-maligned frontman sent out his own message with a joyful knee-slide after breaking the deadlock against Newcastle. There were other more subtle differences to the Berbatov of old, with a little smile offered where a grimace may have once been worn when he poked the ball past Steve Harper and the post with the outside of his boot after a beautiful United move.
Alongside Berbatov, Wayne Rooney got another hour under his belt as he works his way back to match fitness. The England striker may have departed the field having reached a career-high figure for the number of games without scoring for club and country, but there were signs that he is not too far off a return to his peak. His movement was excellent, and he was always looking to get a shot away. It is his touch that is still that little bit off, firing over left-footed from 10 yards after a nod down from Berbatov, then moments later making a hash of being played through by a defence-splitting ball, trying to cut inside Fabricio Coloccini but giving the ball away. His touch will come back with further minutes on the pitch and few would bet on his goalless streak being extended much further.
An area that will have particularly pleased Sir Alex will be the application of his two wingers. Aside from always offering an out-ball to United’s midfielders, both Nani and Luis Valencia were constantly pressing the Newcastle full-backs, denying them time on the ball and winning back possession. It was on one such occasion that United took the lead, with Valencia harrying Jonas Gutierrez and stealing the ball which allowed Paul Scholes to tee up Berbatov. Whole columns could be filled about the mastery of Scholes throughout the 90 minutes but the two widemen in red shirts deserve their mention too.
In previous years, United have made a habit of racking up the goals against Newcastle, with resounding scorelines a common sight both at Old Trafford and St James Park. The margin of victory may only read three goals but the overall performance after a World Cup-disrupted preseason preparation was worth every bit as much as if United had notched up five or six. The two main title contenders have both opened with one-sided home matches against sides promoted from the Championship, and once Chelsea had sent out their statement of intent on Saturday, it was important United replied resolutely. On future weekends, it may well be United scoring six and Chelsea three. What mattered for Ferguson’s side is that they showed they can be every bit as dominant as a team as the Blues. Leagues are certainly never won or lost after one match, but with the rest of last season’s top six sharing draws amongst each other, it will have done United no harm at all to follow Chelsea’s lead and open their campaign with a comprehensive victory.