The closer ... Javier Hernandez slides the ball past Newcastle's Tim Krul to secure a thrilling last-minute victory. Photo: AP
MANCHESTER: This was an absolute diamond of a Premier League match, full of flaws but glittering brightly under leaden skies. This was a reminder of Manchester United's refusal to give up. They trailed three times but kept clawing their way back into contention, eventually winning with a 90th-minute goal from Javier Hernandez.
Another big goal from the ''Little Pea'' was greeted rapturously by the home faithful, the decibel level rising higher at the final whistle and higher again when confirmation came through from the Stadium of Light that the second-placed Manchester City had lost.
Alex Ferguson's men ended the day seven points clear at the top of the table, having delivered a largely unimpressive performance technically and tactically, conceding three goals but relying on the determination that was embodied by the outstanding Patrice Evra.
Yet the neutral's heart had to go out to Newcastle. Alan Pardew's tactics were bold, seeing constant pressure placed on the hosts' defence still missing the commanding presence of Nemanja Vidic. Pardew's players worked so hard, particularly the diligent likes of Vurnon Anita. Even when the Premier League pacesetters were staging their usual siege, Newcastle still counter-attacked and were desperately unfortunate when Sammy Ameobi's late shot hit a post.
Sharper in mind and body during the first half, Newcastle soon broke through. When Michael Carrick lost possession, Newcastle poured forward. Demba Ba's shot was pushed out by David De Gea but the keeper failed to direct it to safety. The ball fell perfectly for James Perch, who swept home his first goal for Newcastle.
The hosts drew level after 24 minutes, following a free-kick from Robin van Persie. The ball sped through to Chris Smalling, and fell to Hernandez. He took a touch, opened up a yard of space but his low shot was repelled by Tim Krul's foot. Jonny Evans reacted quickest, darting in ahead of Danny Simpson to stroke the ball home from close range.
Controversy then ensued with Evans diverting Simpson's ball past De Gea with Ferguson convinced Papiss Cisse was in an offside position.
Old Trafford began to seethe with resentment, a few boos greeting the half-time whistle, the mood stoked by the extraordinary sight of Ferguson on the pitch, remonstrating with referee Mike Dean, then arguing with the assistant referee Jake Collin and the fourth official Neil Swarbrick.
Pardew had warned his players of the gathering storm. ''I said to the players at half-time, you have to expect Manchester United will score,'' said the Newcastle manager. Parity soon arrived. Seizing on Perch's headed clearance, Evra placed a low shot past Krul.
This was now a crazy game. Gabriel Obertan came on for Newcastle and soon created a goal against his old teammates, brilliantly taken first-time by Cisse. Back came Ferguson's side, soon making it 3-3 when Van Persie scored after Krul had kept out his first effort.
In the end, the pressure told on Newcastle. Carrick played another fine pass and there was Hernandez, the master poacher, making it 4-3. ''That was a championship performance,'' Ferguson said.