United break sweat - just

Cole and Beckham strike as Coventry are cowed by reputation
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The Independent Online

Manchester United may not be firing on all cylinders in Europe this year, but they continue to brush all domestic challenges aside with imperious command. The Champions' League match against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday remains the most important date of their season, but that did not stop Sir Alex Ferguson playing his strongest XI yesterday. They were not brilliant, but then they rarely need to be when playing in England these days.

Manchester United may not be firing on all cylinders in Europe this year, but they continue to brush all domestic challenges aside with imperious command. The Champions' League match against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday remains the most important date of their season, but that did not stop Sir Alex Ferguson playing his strongest XI yesterday. They were not brilliant, but then they rarely need to be when playing in England these days.

Before the match, the Coventry manager, Gordon Strachan, had warned his players that if they were to stand any chance of causing an upset, they would have to match Manchester United for work-rate. His team failed to do that in the opening half and then tried valiantly enough in the second, but the truth is that Coventry are not, in football terms at least, quite in the same league as the visitors.

"I thought the problem was that we played against their reputations for the first 45 minutes," Strachan said. "We were watching them play and you can't afford to do that against Manchester United. Roy Keane didn't have to make a tackle until after the break; that says it all."

Injuries have not helped Strachan's cause, as several key players were again missing yesterday. Most significantly, Cedric Roussel and the top-scorer John Aloisi were out, so it fell to the Morocco international Moustapha Hadji, to support the lone frontman Jay Bothroyd. The 19-year-old debutant was released by Arsÿne Wenger in the summer and, although he battled hard, it is clear he is not yet up to the rigorous demands of the Premiership. He was put out of his misery at half-time, only for his replacement, another Premiership new boy, Ysrael Zuñiga, to score Coventry's consolation goal - only their fourth at home all season.

It is not just goals which are hard to come by at Highfield Road. Not even the visit of the best-supported club in the world could fill the stadium and that must be a concern for the board, who are set to build a new 35,000-seater arena on the outskirts of the city. The large contingent of visiting fans were in full voice yesterday, and they were rewarded for their long journey, as Andy Cole and David Beckham struck in quick succession to end the contest before half-time.

As has been the case in recent weeks, Manchester United took a little time asserting their clear superiority, but when the players felt the time was right, they pounced with frightening speed. The manual says it is a good idea to score 20 minutes before half-time, so the champions obliged. Paul Scholes split the Coventry defence with a wonderful angled pass, which Beckham managed to hook into the box, just as the ball was about to cross the line. Cole was on hand at the near post to tuck away the simplest of openers.

"It was over in a matter of seconds," a satisfied Ferguson said after the game. "It was a wonderful move and I doubt you will see a better goal all season." That remains debatable, but Manchester United were now in cruise control and they killed off the game eight minutes before half-time, when Beckham found the back of the net with a wonderful, trademark free-kick.

Ryan Giggs won it, after he teased Paul Williams into a reckless challenge on the edge of the "D". Beckham stood over the ball, looked up once, and then rifled in a low, swerving shot past the hapless Chris Kirkland, who perhaps should have done better. Less than 40 minutes gone, and the game was won.

Strachan took off the ineffectual Bothroyd during the interval, replacing him with the diminutive Zuñiga. And the Peru international went close to making a Kanu-like entry to English football, when he latched on to a throw-in from a team-mate, who was actually attempting to return possession to United, following Scholes' withdrawal because of a pulled hamstring. Thankfully, Zuñiga realised what he had done - just - and promptly passed the ball back to the visitors.

The Peruvian's second contribution was far more telling. Coventry won a corner, which Paul Telfer floated into the United box. Gary Breen was quickest to react and, although his header was goal-bound, Zuñiga made sure. Coventry had a lifeline but, despite their best efforts, were unable to breach the champions' defence a second time.

In fact, it was Ferguson's men who went closest to scoring again, as first a stinging left-foot drive from Keane was expertly saved by the diving Kirkland, and then Dwight Yorke, on as a substitute for Sheringham, struck the base of the right-hand post.

The winning margin may have been no greater than in last season's corresponding fixture, but the gap in class was wider than ever before.

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