Beckham opens wounds

Football: Nottingham Forest 0 Manchester United 4

So much for the Forest recovery. After the clenched-fists fervour of driving his side to a pre-Christmas morale booster at Arsenal's expense, Stuart Pearce was made to swallow a harsh reminder of the reality of his task as caretaker manager at the City Ground yesterday.

United, playing with freshness and confidence, destroyed their bottom- of-the-table opponents with football from a level Forest aspire to in their imaginations. Having scored nine goals in two matches with none conceded, the champions move into third place, five points behind the leaders Liverpool but with a match in hand.

From the moment they went behind, to a beautifully finished goal from the recalled David Beckham, Forest had the look of turkeys anticipating slaughter. When Nicky Butt doubled United's lead before half-time, the result was beyond redemption. In the second period, for which Pearce abandoned his 3-5-2 formation for the familiarity of 4-4-2 - taking off Dean Saunders, who was totally ineffective as right wing back - United were able to turn on their party pieces.

Eric Cantona was unlucky to hit the bar from a delightful touch with the outside of his foot but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer headed in the rebound. Then Andy Cole, sent on for the last 20 minutes, marked his return with a piece of individual brilliance to make Alex Ferguson's day.

"I'm really pleased for him," the United manager said after Cole had turned Forest's defensive cover one way and then the other before curling a shot beyond Mark Crossley. "In a way it has been good for him to be out of the picture because he is coming back determined to be involved. It is almost like buying a new player."

Ominous words indeed for United's rivals on a day in which so many of them faltered. And words underlined by Alan Hill, Forest's assistant manager, speaking on Pearce's behalf. "If they continue to play that way I can't see who is going to stop them. As for ourselves, we were outclassed, outplayed in every area of the field. Stuart wanted to play adventurously again but on this occasion it did not come off. We gave them too much room."

This was exploited by Beckham and Ryan Giggs, and highlighted when Cantona's link with Solskjaer dragged defenders out of position to give Beckham space to launch a chip past Crossley after 24 minutes. Though Forest tried to mount a response, they were done for when Butt drove the ball into the corner after a Paul Scholes shot had rebounded to his feet.

There was never a serious danger of Forest turning the tide. And with Blackburn, Coventry and Middlesbrough winning, the day's result were as bad for them as they were good for United.

Nottingham Forest (3-5-2): Crossley; Jerkan, Chettle, Pearce; Saunders (Gemmill, h-t), Haland, Cooper, Woan, Allen; Clough (Lee, 74), Campbell. Substitutes not used: Fettis (gk), Lyttle, Roy.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Butt (McClair, 76), Giggs (Poborsky, 76); Cantona; Solskjaer (Cole, 70). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Thornley.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

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