NEWCASTLE, England, April 20 – Manchester United failed to score at St.James' Park for the first time in 11 seasons as a goalless draw with Newcastle United kept alive the race for the Barclays Premier League title.
The Red Devils had the chance to move nine points clear of second-placed Arsenal with victory over Alan Pardew’s mid-table side.
But, with Sir Alex Ferguson serving the penultimate game of his five-match touchline ban, the visitors failed to bounce back from the disappointment of their weekend FA Cup semi-final defeat against rivals Manchester City.
Wayne Rooney was back from his two-match suspension for swearing down the lens of a TV camera, but it was another frustrating night for the England forward.
Kick off was delayed for a few seconds as Rooney’s strike partner, Javier Hernandez, knelt on the halfway-line and completed his pre-match prayer routine. If the Mexican was praying for an early chance then he certainly got his wish.
After just 90 seconds Rooney broke down the left wing and delivered for what looked like a routine tap-in for Hernandez.
But Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul, in for the injured Steve Harper, read the unfolding danger and slid from his goal-line to smother at the feet of the frontman, much to the relief of the home crowd.
That relief, though, soon turned to excitement as the black and whites enjoyed a prolonged spell of attacking pressure.
First, Jonas Gutierrez danced by three red shirts before seeing a measured curler from 20 yards deflected wide off Nemanja Vidic.
Then, Shola Ameobi, stretching at the far post to connect with Joey Barton’s deep centre, could only turn into the hands of Edwin Van Der Sar, and Cheik Tiote smashed into those same gloves with a 25-yard drive just seconds later as the Magpies produced a pulsating spell.
It wasn’t the start the league leaders had planned but they soon began to settle and Rooney broke free of marker Mike Williamson on the edge of the area only to lift his shot over both Krul and the crossbar on 19 minutes.
That frenetic opening gave way to a game of defensive containment, but it was Newcastle who finished the half the stronger of the sides.
Skipper Barton saw a 41st-minute free-kick snaffled by Van Der Sar just inside his near post before Peter Lovenkrands headed wide when unmarked just eight yards out.
The second period began in much the same vein as the first and Ryan Giggs, like Lovenkrands just before the break, should have done better when heading wide of goal from an identical, close-range position.
Newcastle were being implored forward by a vociferous home support and Lovenkrands saw a penalty appeal waved away just before the hour mark when he tumbled under the clumsy challenge of Anderson.
Stephen Ireland’s last appearance at St.James’ was his debut for Aston Villa back in August, United the 6-0 winners that day.
The 24-year-old, on loan at Newcastle from Villa, was on the touchline waiting to come on for his bow when Giggs missed the game’s best chance, Patrice Evra sliding a left-wing cross into his path only for the former Wales international to scuff woefully wide from 10 yards.
Ireland had an opportunity of his own at the other end but volleyed inches wide from just outside the area.
The Reds pressed for a winner, introducing former Newcastle captain Michael Owen to a chorus of home boos, but they struggled to break down the home defence and Hernandez was booked for a stoppage-time dive when attempting to con referee Lee Probert into a late penalty.
Ferguson said: "It was a clear penalty. It’s an insult because he’s booked him.
"I thought the referee had a good game tonight, but he’s let himself down by booking the player.
"If it’s not a penalty, fine, but to book him is an insult. There is definitely contact, no doubt about that."