Ferguson's body blow for Hoddle

As United stretch title lead, their manager sparks controversy as he withdraws players from England game; Everton 0 Manchester United 2 Solskjaer 35, Cantona 79 Attendance: 40,079
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The Independent Online
The Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson last night withdrew Gary Neville, David Beckham and Gary Pallister from the England squad for the friendly international against Mexico at Wembley on Saturday, a move that will again bring him into conflict with the England coach Glenn Hoddle.

Neville had a pain-killing injection for damaged ankle ligaments to enable him to play against Porto in midweek, but Ferguson was unwilling for him to do the same against Everton yesterday. Beckham pulled a hamstring late in the match at Goodison Park - United's 2-0 win pushing them six points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premiership - while Pallister, who has missed a large part of the season with persistent back problems, suffered a torn groin muscle. It is also likely to keep him out of the European Cup semi-final first leg match against Borussia Dortmund on 9 April.

Football Association rules dictate that players are supposed to report to the England headquarters at Bisham Abbey for medical examination, but Ferguson insisted the three would be "remaining in our care".

He added: "There is no way I can risk these players at Wembley on an exacting pitch." Ferguson will, however, allow Nicky Butt to join the national squad despite a knock sustained yesterday. "One out of four is not bad," said the United manager, who has already criticised England's end-of-season fixtures in France and can now expect another cold exchange of views with the England coach.

Last night, the FA's director of public affairs, David Davies, attempted to smooth over any possible differences. "Glenn Hoddle and Alex Ferguson have spoken and they will speak again tomorrow after the United players have been assessed," Davies said. "There is no difference at all between Alex and Glenn about the way forward."

It will be water off Ferguson's back after his side showed yesterday that while they are not always the best footballing side in the Premiership here was evidence why they are the best at winning its championship. As they also showed over two legs against Porto, when the opportunity arises they can delight; when the occasion demands they dig deep.

The latter was the necessity yesterday, as might be expected when confronting a crass Everton side who scarcely deserve the loud and loyal support they enjoy. United held firm amid the onslaught and twice broke out incisively to score through Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Eric Cantona. "A major result for us," said the United manager Alex Ferguson. "We won with determination and guts."

United now lead the table by six points in advance of tomorrow night's meeting of their nearest rivals, Arsenal and Liverpool, at Highbury and a draw there will see the champions in a strong position to retain their title, a fourth in five seasons. "I wish it was three games to go," said Ferguson.

United at least have two weeks of rest and recuperation before re-entering the championship fray. That, though, is a ludicrous situation as they may have to play four league matches in the last nine days of the season, with a home fixture against Newcastle having to be postponed as the European Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund takes precedence. It led Ferguson last night to call for an extension to the season.

"When the Premier League started some bright spark there said that fixture congestion like that would never happen," he said. "I am going to look it up. It is up to them to sort it out now and make it fair for everyone. Apart from extending the season, I don't know what the answer is." He suggested that there should be a central clearing system for fixture rearrangement, rather that clubs reorganising.

United kept their minds firmly in the present yesterday, and a recurrence of their slip-up at Sunderland a fortnight ago after European action always looked unlikely. This time they were missing only Gary Neville and Andy Cole through injury and their replacements, brother Phil and Solskjaer, were more than adequate.

As can often be the case when confronting Everton - whose main tactic, in the absence of a creative midfield, remains seeking the head of Duncan Ferguson - the game developed into a struggle for physical supremacy, which United were well equipped to win with Roy Keane at their hub. Chances were few and far between.

Out of the Blues' huffing and puffing, and out of the blue, United claimed a lead with their first shot on target. When Claus Thomsen fouled Butt just outside the United penalty area, Peter Schmeichel launched a long kick upfield where Cantona, with his first telling contribution of the match, flicked the ball on for Solskjaer, who eluded Dave Watson and drilled home left-footed a snap shot from the edge of the Everton area and through the hapless Paul Gerrard's arms.

Shortly after, Pallister was forced from the field with a torn groin. "I feared for us then," said Ferguson, but he need not have worried. There was one scare when Ronny Johnsen might have conceded a penalty in pulling back Graham Stuart - a free kick was awarded on the edge instead - but little otherwise. A few headers by Ferguson, fortunate still to be on the field after felling David May, and one low shot were not close enough. And when Schmeichel saved one-handed from David Unsworth's overhead kick, the game was dead. "There was lots of perspiration but I couldn't see us scoring," said the Everton manager, Joe Royle.

On the rare occasions Everton did get the ball down and play, Barmby, otherwise too often bypassed, did show some ingenuity and almost slipped in the substitute Paul Rideout. Keane and Beckham had chances to seal the game, both thwarted by Gerrard before the goalkeeper erred again, and United duly did.

Beckham's curling cross was missed by Gerrard and Cantona steered a volley home. Pretty or ugly, there is more than one way to win an important football match, the lesson that United's rivals still have to learn.

Faith in Gazza, page 27

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