By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at St James' Park
Dimitar Berbatov slots home Man Utd's winner at Newcastle
Manchester United survived the shock of conceding an early goal at Newcastle to come from behind and secure a win that tightens their grip on the Premier League title race.
A rare blunder from keeper Edwin van der Sar gave Peter Lovenkrands the opportunity to give Newcastle the lead after nine minutes when he dropped a tame shot from Jonas Gutierrez.
But Wayne Rooney equalised on the turn 11 minutes later and Ryan Taylor's mistake allowed Ji-Sung Park to set up Dimitar Berbatov for a simple strike in the 56th minute that leaves United seven points clear of Chelsea and Liverpool with a game in hand.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will acknowledge that this was not a performance from the top drawer and there were moments when Newcastle - particularly Obafemi Martins - rattled his side's normally composed rearguard.
But with Rooney leading from the front, scoring the equaliser and helping to set up Berbatov's winner with a typical piece of quick thinking, Manchester United once again proved they have the players to grind out wins even when they are not at their best.
And if victories for Chelsea and Liverpool on Tuesday briefly rekindled their hopes of overhauling Manchester United, this victory once again underlined that Ferguson's side are now overwhelming favourites to retain their crown.
The defeat leaves Newcastle hovering just above the bottom three with a tough sequence of fixtures to come, but they will take heart from their first-half display in particular, when they gave Manchester United real moments of concern.
Ferguson made seven changes from the side that claimed the Carling Cup against Spurs on Sunday.
Van der Sar returned in place of Wembley hero Ben Foster, having gone 1,302 minutes without conceding a goal in the Premier League. It was a record that survived only another nine minutes and he was solely responsible for its demise.
Gutierrez's angled shot carried power, but Van der Sar went down awkwardly and spilled the ball into the path of the lurking Lovenkrands, who provided the simplest of finishes.
Newcastle were heartened by that early strike and gave a defence which has looked impregnable at times this season a torrid time in the first half-hour.
Martins' pace was too much for Manchester United on occasions, and he was only inches away from doubling Newcastle's advantage with a near post snapshot.
Nemanja Vidic was then booked for hauling down Martins before Rooney restored equality with a typically opportunist finish after 20 minutes.
Rooney urges United to focus
John O'Shea found Rooney in the area, and he turned and fired a left-foot shot on the turn high past Newcastle keeper Steve Harper.
Newcastle, their fragile confidence buoyed by the early goal, continued to make the Manchester United defence look vulnerable and it took a timely touch from Vidic to divert Ryan Taylor's cross to safety.
As an eventful opening period drew to a close, Manchester United finally managed to bring a semblance of order to their performance and Vidic should have given them the lead after 38 minutes, somehow heading Michael Carrick's corner off target from point-blank range.
The half finished with a flare-up when Steven Taylor cuffed Cristiano Ronaldo in a collision that incensed Ferguson. Taylor was eventually booked, and he was followed after the whistle by Rio Ferdinand when he continued the debate with referee Steve Bennett.
Manchester United needed to up the tempo after the break, and their cause was helped by a moment of calamitous defending from Ryan Taylor that gifted them the lead.
We deserved something - Hughton
Rooney's long ball was a piece of quick thinking rather than a moment of inspiration, but Taylor unwisely chose to try and chest the ball back to Harper. Ji-Sung Park beat the keeper to the ball and Berbatov slid the finish into an unguarded net.
It was an uphill task for an under-strength Newcastle, and Harper was forced to demonstrate sound handling when he saved low from Rooney's drive with 20 minutes remaining.
And the keeper was in action again to turn a rising drive from Berbatov over the top as Manchester United pressed forward ominously.
Newcastle showed real character until the final whistle, with both Lovenkrands and Martins testing Van der Sar - but Manchester United once again showed the vital quality of champions by digging out a victory on a night when they never touched the heights.
Newcastle: Harper, Steven Taylor, Coloccini, Bassong, Jose Enrique, Lovenkrands, Ryan Taylor (Carroll 77), Geremi, Gutierrez, Martins, Smith (LuaLua 82). Subs Not Used: Krul, Cacapa, Butt, Ameobi, Edgar.
Booked: Steven Taylor, Gutierrez.
Goals: Lovenkrands 9.
Man Utd: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Fletcher, Carrick, Park, Berbatov (Giggs 90), Rooney. Subs Not Used: Foster, Anderson, Scholes, Evans, Tevez, Eckersley.
Booked: Vidic, Ferdinand.
Goals: Rooney 20, Berbatov 56.
Ref: Steve Bennett (Kent).
BBC Sport Player Rater man of the match: Man Utd's Wayne Rooney with 7.79 (on 90 minutes).
Please note that you can still give the players marks out of 10 on BBC Sport's Player Rater after the match has finished.
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