Manchester United 3
Manchester United's continued their imposing progress in the Champions' League last night when they reached the quarter-finals with their fifth successive victory. They now go to Turin in a fortnight with their fate secured and Juventus's in their hands.
Andy Cole, with his 11th strike in eight matches, Teddy Sheringham and a bizarre own goal from Lubomir Faktor ensured that United finish top of Group B with maximum points from five matches. It was not their most compelling performance - even a late flurry could not disguise their return was meagre given the number of chances they created - but it was enough to dispose of Kosice. Newcastle and Juventus would wish they could afford to be so profligate.
Indeed, the Italians are now hanging on United's mood. If the English champions get a win or a draw in Turin then Juventus will not progress as one of the two best runners-up. The prospect of delivering a knock- out blow to such potent rivals is an enticing and unexpected bonus of the near-flawless campaign to date.
"We'll go to Turin and enjoy ourselves," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said with a huge grin. "And hope it's another good night for the club."
Last night was definitely a good one although his side barely had to get out of second gear to beat the Slovakian champions, whose inexperience in Europe was transparent. They played some nice football until 30 yards out but did not threaten. United could miss and miss knowing they would not be punished.
And they did. Ferguson had warned against his side being lulled into too slow a tempo but although they played at their own pace, they were less authoritative in front of goal. Cole, Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have got a hat-trick apiece but contrived not to. "We made things difficult for ourselves," Ferguson admitted.
The pattern was set from the start. Paul Scholes, whose passing was a delight all night, and Nicky Butt pierced the Kosice right flank three times in the opening 11 minutes and if Ryan Giggs' crosses or his thumping shot had matched his pace the game would have become a formality in its infancy.
At this point Kosice had barely got out of their own territory, but when a home goal did not arrive and United's early zest began to fade, they grew in assurance and might have taken the lead themselves with a flurry of activity round the United goal. First, Vladislav Zvara forced Peter Schmeichel to dive to his left to save, and then Jozef Kozlej was a fraction away from Dusan Toth's swerving cross-shot.
This stirred United out of their temporary stupor and Cole should have at least contrived a shot when Teddy Sheringham's guile made him time in the area after 28 minutes. As he tried to control with no one round him, however, the ball squirted backwards.
Shades of Cole the calamity instead of the prolific striker of recent vintage, but, as if to mock that earlier reincarnation, he struck after 39 minutes. Beckham played a short ball into the right hand side of the area and Cole spun Marek Spilar to an irrelevance before shooting between Ladislav Molnar's legs.
The first half finished with a flurry in which Giggs, Cole and Sheringham might have scored. Scholes burst through the centre a minute after the re-start, his 25-yard shot crashing against a post before Cole lobbed over. A minute later Sheringham rose impressively at the near post to meet David Beckham's cross from the right corner flag. His header was less majestic, going narrowly wide.
Such was United's grip, Ferguson was able to bring on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for Nicky Butt after 54 minutes and the Norwegian might have scored twice immediately. His first effort was a wild miscue but his second, from Beckham's centre was a fierce header that the Slovakian goalkeeper did well to save.
With United seemingly set on a 1-0 victory, the substitute Faktor took an inadvertent hand, tackling Teddy Sheringham and seeing the rebound trickle into his own net and with the match in injury time Sheringham crowned the night with a glorious swerving shot from 25 yards.
"They can go on to be champions of Europe," Karol Pecze, the Kosice coach said of his opponents, and the mood of optimism spread to Ferguson. "If we keep fit and stay clear of suspension we have a chance," he agreed. "We've definitely improved on last year."
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, P Neville (Berg, 75); Beckham, Butt (Solskjaer, 54), Scholes, Giggs (Poborsky, 75); Sheringham, Cole. Substitutes not used: McClair, Curtis, Twiss, Van der Gouw (gk).
Kosice (1-3-4-2): Molnar; Semenik; Kozak, Spilar, Toth; Sovic, Dzurik, Zvara (Faktor, 80), Janocko (Rusnak, 31); Lubarskij, Kozlej (Bochnovic, 83). Substitutes not used:, Telek, Kral, Cvirk, Benko (gk).
Referee: A Cakar (Tur).