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Daniel James shines in Manchester United's win over struggling Newcastle

Daniel James can be maligned but his strike here was precious. It lifted a stuttering Manchester United who went on to kill off Newcastle courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’s 22nd goal of the season. It means Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side remain 10 points behind leaders Manchester City and can retain some hope of catching them.

“I’m never going to say it’s done until it’s done,” said the manager. “You’ve seen so many examples of teams hanging in there. So it’s: do your own jobs and something might happen, we just think about our own games. We’ve got loads to play for.”

As for James’s performance, Solskjær said: “We’ve targeted a few games for his X-factor. We felt we needed his energy tonight, the width he gives. I’m delighted for him to get a goal, and he’s ready to go again.”

For Newcastle this was an eighth loss in 10 games and they hover three points above 18th-placed Fulham. Steve Bruce has to turn this form around soon or they may end up in the Championship next season. “There are six or seven teams in and around it with 13 games to go,” said Newcastle’s manager. “There’s a few looking over their shoulders, but I am still quietly confident we’ll be fine. It’s gloomy but I think we’ll get the results we need.”

Solskjær made five changes from Thursday’s 4-0 win over Real Sociedad, with James retaining his place and making his first Premier League start since Boxing Day.

The manager’s assistants Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna, Mike Phelan and Richard Hartis were absent, Solskjær saying that “as a precaution we have isolated some coaching staff”. It meant Nicky Butt, Mark Dempsey and Lee Grant, a reserve goalkeeper, taking their place.

Bruce, whose sole switch was to bench Dwight Gayle for Joelinton in attack, had obviously ordered his side to press early as they hemmed United in. The hosts were surprisingly muted considering the rout of the Spaniards only three days before.

Fernandes hit a free-kick straight at Karl Darlow, then James drove a low ball too close to Newcastle’s keeper: two examples of a sluggish attacking intent. Better were two quick breaks that featured Luke Shaw, yellow shirts being scattered as first James then Marcus Rashford pinned Newcastle back. Yet, each time, conviction was lacking around the penalty area.

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A further, more glaring illustration came when James was played in by Fernandes and should have produced an instant shot. He dithered and the chance for the opener was gone. Now, though, Rashford showed how to do it with a goal of sparking individuality. The No 10 received the ball on the left, nutmegged Emil Krafth and when the right-back recovered Rashford sprinted around him once more and beat Darlow with a fierce finish squeezed in – to the keeper’s fury – at the near post.

“A cardinal sin for a keeper, being beaten at the near post,” said Bruce. Krafth will also have felt embarrassed but he had a part in Newcastle’s equaliser. Here, any red shirt nearby backed off, before Harry Maguire finally made a challenge and a corner was won by the visitors.

David de Gea tipped over Allan Saint-Maximin’s shot for another corner and, now, United’s latest defensive horror show took place. Jonjo Shelvey took it to Miguel Almirón before Joe Willock sent in a cross. Maguire’s attempted back-header clearance was amateurish, and there was Saint-Maximin to score, De Gea also contributing with a lack of athleticism.

Newcastle deserved to be level as the second half began but, surely, there would be a reaction from United. What occurred initially was another Shelvey dead ball and another weak Maguire header which he directed behind him. Next, a careless James header caused Nemanja Matic to foul Willock, and the free-kick went close to bringing Newcastle’s second: when the ball went to Saint-Maximin his effort had to be saved low down by De Gea.

United still misfired. James wandered up his latest blind alley, gave the ball away, hunted it back down, then nearly overhit a simple pass to the anonymous Anthony Martial.

Newcastle, though, were about to commit their own defensive mishap: Jamal Lewis missed a Matic pass that went across the area and a composed James struck for a third goal in three appearances and a total of six in 12 – a healthy ratio.

After Rashford drew Willock into fouling him for the penalty, Fernandes beat Darlow to his right and the match concluded with a two-minute senior United debut for Shola Shoretire, a 17-year-old forward. Of the injured Joelinton, Bruce said: “Its a bit of a groin and hip problem for him.”

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