Football: Cole's confidence compounds Everton's seasonal misery

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The Independent Online
Guy Hodgson

Manchester United 2 Everton 0

Alex Ferguson denies it vigorously but Manchester United are disappearing into the distance while barely breaking out of a trot. This win puts them six points clear at the top of the Premiership and the most difficult hurdle they had to face yesterday was getting their supporters through the Trafford Park streets, closed because of gale damage.

As for Everton, forget it. They were not so much beaten as slaughtered, the scoreline flattering them to a face-lifting degree. You try to find reasons for believing they will escape relegation - but with performances like this it is very hard.

It was not as if United had their strongest side out. Peter Schmeichel had a slight back strain and Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs were rested. The visitors, too, were short of key players but these days even an Everton team with Slaven Bilic, Gary Speed and Duncan Ferguson hardly inspire fear. They are second bottom and second rate.

That is not how you would describe United, whose biggest enemy now would appear to be complacency, a danger that Ferguson is aware of. "It is poppycock to talk about winning the title by March," he wrote in the programme. "The memory of losing that 12-point lead to Blackburn and slipping up against Leeds on the last lap is burned into me too deeply to fall into that kind of trap."

Certainly they avoided it yesterday. Kevin Pilkington made only his third Premiership start, but frankly Schmeichel could have played such was the lack of threat from Everton. They managed only one shot on target all afternoon.

Apart from making 16-year-old Francis Jeffers the club's second youngest player after Joe Royle by bringing him on as a substitute, the afternoon had only one redeeming characteristic for Everton: they somehow slipped away from Old Trafford without an extra portion of Christmas stuffing.

Once Henning Berg had headed United in front after 13 minutes the match was over as a contest. Shot after shot rained in on the Everton goal, but only Andy Cole could find the net.

Berg's goal came from David Beckham's corner from the left which Ronny Johnsen headed into Earl Barrett's knee. The ball might have already crossed the line but Berg put the matter beyond doubt, heading in the rebound from a range of two feet.

A minute later Thomas Myhre contorted himself excellently to save Paul Scholes' flamboyant volley and then Craig Short twice had to make blocks from Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In the 17th minute a lovely pass from Nicky Butt down the right wing set Beckham free, his shot flicking the bar before going over. After 29 minutes United had the ball in the net again when Solskjaer's cross was met at the far post by Beckham and turned in by Cole. Had Beckham gone for goal it would have counted, but the extra pass made the effort offside.

Cole looked mortified by the decision but erased his disappointment five minutes later with a goal that said everything about his newly found self- belief. A year ago the only chip the pounds 7m striker would have contemplated was one with salt and vinegar on. His confidence gone, he preferred to blast and hope rather than place shots.

It is a different Cole now, however, and when Butt passed to him 20 yards out he looked up, saw Myhre off his line, and beat him with a deft flick of his right foot so sublime it could have had Eric Cantona on he delivery end of it. The Everton goalkeeper could merely watch it go into the top corner.

The second-half should have completed the rout, instead United let Everton off the hook. The closest they came to adding to their score was after 51 minutes when Cole's flick gave Solskjaer a run on goal. He had time but no accuracy and his shot skewed horribly wide.

It did not matter and never looked like it would. United hardly broke sweat yesterday.

"It was an embarrassing 90 minutes," Howard Kendall, the Everton manager, said. "Men against boys."

Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Pilkington; G Neville, Berg, Pallister (McClair, 74), P Neville (Curtis, 82); Beckham (Poborsky, 66), Johnsen, Butt; Scholes; Cole, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Sheringham, Giggs.

Everton (3-5-2): Myhre; Short, Watson (Jeffers, h-t), Tiler; Barrett (Allen, 65), Oster, Farrelly, Ball (Thomsen, 78), Hinchcliffe; Barmby, Cadamarteri. Substitutes not used: Thomas, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).