By Dan King
Chelsea were prevented from returning to top spot in the Barclays Premier League by a determined Newcastle performance as The Magpies produced a display to warm the cockles on a freezing cold afternoon.
The temperature was well below zero, and the game only went ahead due to the determined efforts of club and council staff who cleared the pitch, stands and access roads. But their efforts proved worthwhile as United earned a useful point against the side widely regarded as the best in the league, who would have overtaken Manchester United with a win.
It could even have been all three had Salomon Kalou's shot on the stroke of half-time not taken a cruel deflection to beat Tim Krul, cancelling out Andy Carroll's ninth goal of the season. But in the end, although The Blues prodded and probed throughout the second half, Chris Hughton's side were good value for the draw.
Hughton welcomed back Cheik Tiote in midfield, but was without the suspended defensive duo of Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson, meaning Steven Taylor and Sol Campbell both made their first home appearances of the season. Skipper Kevin Nolan was also absent with an ankle injury, so Wayne Routledge came in on the right with Danny Guthrie allowed to play in his favoured central midfield position.
And Newcastle showed their intent early on, almost scoring after just two minutes when Guthrie's free-kick was met by Taylor's head. Petr Cech parried it straight to Shola Ameobi but the striker, captaining the side in Nolan's absence, saw his first-time effort flash just wide.
But on six minutes, the home side did go in front. Routledge, who enjoyed a lively game, attempted to prod the ball through for Carroll but Chelsea defender Alex intercepted and tried to play the ball back towards his keeper. There was a breakdown in communication, however, as Cech had advanced towards the ball and could only watch as the ball rolled past him. Carroll, quick as a flash, was onto it to tap into the empty net.
It was just what United deserved after a bright start in which they had tore into Chelsea, clearly low on confidence after their recent stuttering form, but the visitors sought an instant response with Didier Drogba seeing a shot pushed onto the side netting by Krul and a header go wide.
Then great defending from The Magpies thwarted Carlo Ancelottio's men as Jose Enrique, perhaps United's best player on the day, blocked Alex's header on the line before Taylor bravely blocked the follow-up. Ashley Cole then went down seeking a penalty after a robust challenge from Tiote, but referee Andre Marriner was not reeled in.
And in the final minute of the half, the pressure paid off for Chelsea - although their equaliser had touch of good fortune about it. Kalou, the Ivory Coast forward, received a pass, cut inside and shot low towards goal, with the ball nicking off a Newcastle defender on the way to deflect it past Krul.
Chelsea started the second half stronger too, with Cole flashing across goal and Drogba seeing a snapshot well saved by Krul, but United rallied and after Carroll's header was saved by Cech, Routledge was extremely unlucky not to score. Enrique's deep free-kick tempted the Czech keeper off his line to punch, but the ball went straight to the United winger who returned it with interest - only for Cole to expertly head off the line as it flew towards the net.
However, it was Chelsea who looked the more likely winner as Newcastle began to defend deeper and deeper, with Anelka shooting just wide and Krul saving from Drogba, Branislav Ivanovic and Cole. Then Drogba finally did find a way past United's Dutch keeper, but clearly handled in the build-up and so it didn't stand.
Kalou should have grabbed his second as he stole in ahead of Taylor, was thwarted by Krul but then presented with the rebound six yards out, only to put it wide. Sub Daniel Sturridge then saw his shot zip just past the post, but with Nile Ranger looking dangerous after his arrival either side could have snatched it at the end. Ultimately, a draw probably suited United more than Chelsea but both sides will have been reasonably pleased to have taken something from an entertaining and hard-fought affair.