United attack on all fronts
ENGLISH FA PREMIERSHIP/ Manchester Utd ... 2 Birmingham City ... 0: Will the real Manchester United please stand up? Three games, three points, two pallid displays and then one of their best performances of the season. Alex Ferguson must be wondering what on earth the new year has in store for him.
United enter 2003 attacking on four fronts - the Premiership, English League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League - and the manager will be agonising over just which United will turn up for the business end of the campaign. Will it be the bit-between-the-teeth, hell-for- leather desperadoes who overhauled Newcastle's 12-point lead in 1996, or the Rolex-wearing, think-they-know-it-all millionaires who finished last May without a single piece of silverware? Answers on a Christmas card to Old Trafford.
Meanwhile United, despite their best efforts to shoot themselves in the foot with defeats at Blackburn and Middlesbrough, go into the new year not at all badly placed. They are third on goal difference to Chelsea, whom they play at home on January 18th, and have players coming back from injury banging on the first-team door. Arsenal, at the top of the table, are taking all the pressure.
"You look at them now, they're going into January, they're going to have all their players fit and I think it's going to be very, very close," said Birmingham's manager Steve Bruce, the former captain who took United to the first Premiership title. "They're both wonderful teams but it will go right down to the wire."
Indicating that no one has a divine right to play for his team Ferguson left out Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has a infected toe, and put Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers on the bench. There was no place for Laurent Blanc, though the manager demurred at the suggestion that anyone had been dropped. "It wasn't necessarily dropping players. We have a pool and over the Christmas period we have a lot of matches and you use your pool to get through that. In general we just freshened up," he said.
Inevitably, there was speculation that Giggs could be a renewed target for Internazionale, though the player himself said: "Last year I signed a contract with Manchester United until 2006. I was tempted, but now I think I'll end my career with them."
Whatever the explanation from Ferguson, it worked. With Juan Sebastian Veron dictating the midfield and David Beckham bursting with athletic vigour on the right flank, a depleted City were consistently overrun. United's opener was the result of a sweeping move that began in the right-back position with John O'Shea and resulted in a deep cross from the left corner flag from Mikael Silvestre that was headed back by Beckham for Diego Forlan to lash in.
Birmingham could have got back into the game in the 55th minute when Jovan Kirovski's header had goal written all over it until Fabien Barthez somehow got down to paw the ball away. Then in the 71st minute Barthez again produced a miracle to keep out Aliou Cisse's header and it was to be Birmingham's last chance. Three minutes later Veron's through-ball put Beckham in on goal and the England captain had the audacity to chip Nico Vaesen from 25 yards.
"We're disappointed we didn't score more but I think the performance was very good," said Ferguson, who suggested over the weekend that clubs would benefit from a winter break. "We have to win (all) our games - it's the nature of our club and what we expect, and winning's the only option for us. But the players showed a great will today - they were determined and confident on the ball and I thought we did very well."
For Birmingham the prognosis is bad. They are sliding down the table and in the middle of injury and disciplinary crises that could rob them of players at a crucial stage of the season. Seven of their defenders are on the treatment table and Cisse and Geoff Horsfield will start bans in the new year.
On top of that Bruce hinted that he had disciplined Clinton Morrison for turning up 20 minutes late for the game against Everton on Boxing Day. The transfer window could not come sooner.
"We've got a few weeks to address the problem and let's be fair, the really good players aren't available so we know we're up against it," he said. "We've got to look and scour the market."
MANCHESTER UTD: Barthez, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea, Beckham, Keane (Giggs 85), Veron, Scholes (Richardson 75), Forlan, Solskjaer (Phil Neville 76). Subs Not Used: Ricardo, Gary Neville. Booked: Brown. Goals: Forlan 37, Beckham 73.
BIRMINGHAM: Vaesen, Kenna, Cunningham (Powell 63), Michael Johnson, Sadler (Woodhouse 68), Devlin, Savage, Cisse, Lazaridis (Horsfield 50), Morrison, Kirovski. Subs Not Used: Bennett, Hughes. Booked: Kenna, Cisse. Attendance: 67,640.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).