Portuguese still does not have a win at St James' Park after Benitez's men enjoy memorable victory over Premier League rivals
Mourinho's Manchester United no match for an organised Newcastle United side
It will not go down as Rafa Benitez’s most famous 1-0 win over Jose Mourinho. How could it, when he twice tasted victory by that scoreline in the Uefa Champions League semi-finals?
Yet this may be remembered as his best win as Newcastle United manager. “Hopefully not, because there will be better ones in the future,” the ever demanding Spaniard said.
But this will take some beating. Consider the context. Newcastle kicked off in the relegation zone. They had not won in eight home league games, going back to October. They had taken a solitary point against the top six this season. That all changed as Mourinho was overcome by an old foe.
Newcastle were compact and organised, in Benitez’s truest traditions. Unlike an archetypal Mourinho side, Manchester United showed a strange lack of ruthlessness, failing to capitalise on spells of dominance.
Mourinho still has not won a league game at St James’s Park. He lost this because of what he termed “a defensive mistake”. His side failed to clear Jonjo Shelvey’s free kick and, when teed up by Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie was left utterly free to drill a shot beyond David de Gea.
Paul Pogba’s final contribution was to fail to jump for that free kick. He had pulled up in the warm up and moved gingerly thereafter, less the box-to-box midfielder Mourinho had talked about that an immobile, reduced presence.
The sidelined pair of Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera were absent altogether as the day’s damage stretched beyond the result.
In contrast, Newcastle had much to savour. Shelvey’s temperament can make him a liability but his ability is considerable. He illustrated his talent. Others showed their heart.
“They fought like animals,” Mourinho said. “They went over all the limits of effort, sacrifice: everything a manager likes to see in his team.”
Striker Gayle summed up their spirit with two blocks of goal-bound shots from Anthony Martial and ought to have had a penalty when Chris Smalling tripped him.
A lack of significant signings had been an issue but Benitez’s debutant goalkeeper Martin Dubravka made an auspicious start. “He can buy the lottery and win today,” Benitez said.
A confident, commanding presence, the Slovakian secured a clean sheet with an injury-time save from Michael Carrick. His best stop, after Nemanja Matic supplied a defence-splitting pass, denied Martial.
But the Frenchman was profligate. He had been shifted to the right to accommodate Alexis Sanchez, who delivered a couple of delightful touches. Sanchez set Jesse Lingard up for a chance which Dubravka saved. He showed his ingenuity to supply Romelu Lukaku for another with an improvised diving header. He had a shot deflected into the side netting after a mazy run.
And yet, when it seemed certain he would score, he did not. The Chilean rounded Dubravka, steadied himself to shoot and the delay allowed Florian Lejeune to recover and block his eventual effort.
The pass was a sign of the improvement in Lukaku’s passing, but he is yet to recapture the scoring form he showed in August and September. The Belgian had a goal chalked off when both he and Smalling, who headed the ball to him, were leaning on defenders.
Smalling compounded an afternoon of mistakes by diving to concede the free kick that brought Newcastle’s goal.
“We could've been here for 10 hours and not scored a goal,” Mourinho rued. “The gods of football were on their side.”
Yet this was not just about luck and Manchester United, once again, looked a side in search of a formula. Phil Jones was altogether blunter. “We didn’t show up,” the defender said.
Newcastle certainly did.
“We showed the character, the commitment and the desire,” Benitez said. “Amazing effort.”