United cruise towards top spot

 

There have not been many occasions during their gatecrashing of the Premiership party when it has been possible to describe Wimbledon as a soft touch. This, though, was one of them. Perhaps those pre-season predictions of relegation will prove valid after all.

The old Wimbledon would have relished being objectionable opponents for Manchester United only a few days before a Champions League match against Brondby in Denmark, just the sort of team to ruffle some feathers, or hack a shin or two. This team were simply overawed by a United side who were allowed to treat almost half the match as a gentle training session.

United purred into second place with pleasing and efficient football as draws for Arsenal and Aston Villa reinforced the suspicion around Old Trafford that they will soon be rightfully restored to the top of the Premiership. But, as Alex Ferguson pointed out, Brondby had also won 5-1 the previous evening. It is dangerous to draw too many Champions League conclusions from such a mismatch.

Ferguson drew most satisfaction from the developing understanding of his strikers, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, and in the forceful debut at right-back of Wes Brown.

The manager later told Cole he had played his way into Wednesday's side. He said: "We saw Yorke and Cole really fresh today. Andy Cole has picked himself and he will play against Brondby."

Ferguson's mood may improve even more as his first-choice goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, starts training again in the hope of being ready to face Brondby, his old club.

Cole's brilliance was marred by a succession of missed chances (the worst a first-half header that flew too high from two yards out) and his two goals could have been five. But he can rarely have been more elusive for United; every time his marker Dean Blackwell imagined that he had him on a string, it turned out to be elastic.

Blackwell's distress at the nutmeg with which Cole fashioned his second goal - and United's fifth - summed up his wretched afternoon. Ferguson happily refused to commit himself to an established Cole-Yorke striking partnership. "I like the freshness that comes from the ability to change things up front," he said. "Strikers have the hardest task of all."

Brown's debut was outstanding. At 19, he is chiefly regarded as a central defender, but Gary Neville remained there, leaving Brown to forage down the right to good effect. An adaptability that marked him as a player of some substance.

One Sunday newspaper described Brown as "flame-haired," which judging by his cropped appearance indicated that he had not as much shaved his head as set it alight. Had Neil Sullivan's flying save not denied him minutes before half-time, he would also have set alight 55,000 spectators.

With Roy Keane also striking a post, United should have been off and running by half-time. Instead, Wimbledon equalised five minutes before the interval with their first attack, Jason Euell benefiting from a deflection off Jaap Stam after Carl Leaburn held up Kenny Cunningham's cross.

Ryan Giggs restored United's lead in injury time with a far-post header - Blackwell's staggering header on the line having kept out Yorke's drive - before Beckham's precise 30-yard drive ended the contest with some elan three minutes into the second half. When presented with an identical opportunity a minute later, Beckham became the incorrigible footballing show-off and an ambitious chip sailed too high.

When Blackwell stumbled over a clearance, and Yorke slid in United's fourth, Ferguson called for the substitutes' board. The crowd day-dreamed, the afternoon became uncomfortably cold and Cole, at his most irrepressible, dazzlingly made and missed enough chances to get the Wimbledons of the world through the winter. He will be expected to make it pay on Wednesday.

Manchester Utd: Van Der Gouw, G Neville, Stam, Beckham (Cruyff 57), Cole, Giggs (Scholes 67), P Neville (Curtis 74), Blomqvist, Keane, Yorke, Brown. Subs Not Used: Solskjaer, Berg. Booked: Stam. Goals: Cole 19, Giggs 45, Beckham 48, Yorke 54, Cole 88.

Wimbledon: Sullivan, Cunningham, Kimble (Ardley 45), Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher, Earle, Roberts, Leaburn (Gayle 45), Hughes, Euell. Subs Not Used: Heald, Kennedy, Cort. Booked: Roberts. Goal: Euell 39.

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).