LONDON • They began the match in the bottom three and ended it in dreamland.
If anything could encapsulate the extremity of existence at Newcastle United, it was on Sunday when manager Rafa Benitez and his players finished a blissful day in 13th, smothered in praise by Jose Mourinho.
On the other side, the Manchester United manager lamented his team's poor finishing after they suffered a first loss to Newcastle for five years at St James' Park in the English Premier League.
Matt Ritchie's 65th-minute goal earned the hosts a 1-0 victory and left United a whopping 16 points behind leaders Manchester City.
Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez all suffered off days in front of goal while Newcastle's debutant Martin Dubravka, on loan from Sparta Prague until the end of the season, was inspired in goal.
"My verdict is that we could've been here for 10 hours and not scored a goal. Newcastle played with their lives and defended with their lives," Mourinho told the BBC, having earlier described the opposition as fighting "like animals".
"The gods of football were clearly on their side. They must have an amazing feeling after giving absolutely everything."
BIG HAND IN WIN
He can buy the lottery and win today. He was composed and that gave confidence to the team. But all the players worked hard, so it is not fair to say just the goalkeeper played well.
RAFA BENITEZ, Newcastle manager, lauding on-loan Slovakian goalkeeper Martin Dubravka and his team-mates for their never-say-die attitude. Manchester United took 13 shots, six of which found the target, but could not beat Dubravka, whose best save denied Anthony Martial.
Mourinho reckoned that Newcastle players "went over all the limits in their efforts and sacrifices" and he was right.
Dubravka, Jamaal Lascelles, Jonjo Shelvey, Mohamed Diame and Ritchie gave absolutely everything, but Mourinho's assessment was also a damning indictment of his own team.
Paul Pogba and others did not push themselves enough. Sanchez was typically tireless but, for a team with so much talent, Mourinho's side lacked hunger and that was unacceptable.
They showed more desire late on when Pogba went off for Michael Carrick and still found Newcastle players making every sacrifice to protect their lead.
Mourinho refused to single out Pogba despite another insipid performance by the midfielder.
In his last two starts, Pogba has been substituted before the 70th minute for below-par displays.
"No problem with Pogba," the Portuguese said. "I wanted a better way to come out against a compact team by bringing out Michael Carrick. He makes everything simple."
And it was Benitez's team, a collective of lesser technical players, who wanted victory more than Mourinho's men and passion won it in the end.
Newcastle prevailed because they never stopped believing.
Benitez was full of praise for Dubravka, 29, after the match.
"He can buy the lottery and win today. He was composed and that gave confidence to the team," the Spaniard said. "But all the players worked hard, so it is not fair to say just the goalkeeper played well."
Mourinho could put the result down to a bad day at St James' Park, albeit a familiar one for him personally as he has yet to enjoy a league win on this ground in seven attempts.
The defeat also means that there is now a tight race for the three remaining Champions League spots, with United just two points ahead of Liverpool (54), who beat Southampton 2-0.
Tottenham are third on 52, while Chelsea will be just a point behind Liverpool if they beat West Bromwich Albion yesterday (this morning, Singapore time).
For all the talk of United's improved defending this season, neither Phil Jones nor Chris Smalling spreads confidence.
City have disappeared over the horizon and United, despite having the occasional problems in attack, also need some investment in defence, to give proper chase next season as well as more sustained "effort and sacrifices".
THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS