By Mark Ogden, Old Trafford
Demba Ba’s controversial second-half penalty saw Manchester United’s miserable week end with angry players surrounding referee Mike Jones at the final whistle and Sir Alex Ferguson berating the fourth official and linesman.
United will finish this weekend having closed the gap on Manchester City if the Premier League leaders lose at Liverpool on Sunday, but as Newcastle United emerged from Old Trafford with a point, the home side’s frustration at losing top billing to their ‘noisy neighbours’ is becoming evident on the pitch.
Cheshire official Jones, a late replacement after the unwell Phil Dowd withdrew from the game on Friday, pointed to the penalty spot on 62 minutes after assistant John Flynn signalled a foul by Rio Ferdinand on Hatem Ben Arfa.
Television replays were inconclusive, with Ferdinand appearing both to trip Ben Arfa and take the ball.
Ba ignored the controversy and sent David de Gea the wrong way from 12 yards to equalise and cancel out Javier Hernández’s opener.
Ba’s goal was the decisive strike and Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney’s frustrations were borne out after the game as they continued to question the referee about his decision as they left the pitch.
Prior to that, Ferguson had confronted fourth official Chris Foy and assistant referee Darren Bond in the technical area as United’s fury lingered.
“I didn’t think anyone in the ground thought it was a penalty apart from the assistant referee.” Ferguson said. “The referee thought it was a corner.”
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the penalty, United created ample opportunities in the closing stages to win the game.
They did not take any of them, so if the officials were at fault, they were not alone in failing to measure up.
Although United reacted to losing 6-1 at home to City last month by going back to basics to earn three clean sheets in successive victories against Everton, Sunderland and Swansea, there remained a sense that all was not right with Ferguson’s team.
Concerns over the lack of imagination in midfield and frailties at the back – despite the shut-outs, mistakes were made – proved well-founded as a more accurate picture of United’s health emerged in the 2-2 Champions League draw with Benfica in midweek.
As Newcastle had proven at City last weekend that they are no pushovers under Alan Pardew’s management, United’s desire to return to the scintillating form of August and September was never going to be easy against the men from St James’ Park – apologies, the Sports Direct Arena.
Newcastle, whose unbeaten start to the season ended with a 3-1 defeat at City, were the better team in the early stages and Ba was denied an opener on 11 minutes when, having been teed up by Ben Arfa’s 30-yard pass, his volley was well saved by De Gea.
United broke the deadlock four minutes into the second half, though, when keeper Tim Krul was beaten by a combination of luck and Hernández’s predatory instinct.
Although Rooney’s free-kick had been blocked by Jonas Gutiérrez, the United forward struck the rebound goalwards from 20 yards.
Steven Taylor’s attempted clearance then struck Gutiérrez’s hip and the ball bounced into the back of the net.
That was harsh on Newcastle, but they would have been relieved not to fall further behind within a minute when Fabio da Silva shot over the crossbar from close range.
Four minutes later, Ashley Young wasted another good chance when he passed the ball wide of the far post from 15 yards. United were missing too many good chances and were punished when Jones awarded Newcastle their penalty.
Pardew said: “At the time I thought it was a penalty, but you could tell from the players’ reaction that it was tight.
“Looking at it again, the ball changed direction and whether he [Ferdinand] took a bit of Hatem before he played the ball is debatable.
“I’m sure Alex and United will be very disappointed with that, but the decision for us was a break.”
Ba equalised, but United still had time to reclaim the lead and Newcastle allowed them to build up momentum in search of winner. The home side were helped by Gutiérrez being sent off for a second bookable offence on 79 minutes following a foul on Nani.
United piled on the pressure and Young and Nemanja Vidic were both denied a goal before Newcastle full-back Danny Simpson somehow kept out Hernández’s header with an incredible goal-line clearance on 81 minutes.
Yes, United could feel hard done by with the penalty, but that would have been a footnote had they scored any of their subsequent chances.