Ferguson's faith in Cole being tested to the limit

CLIVE WHITE

Manchester United 0 Aston Villa 0

As if the two sitters missed by Andy Cole were not damaging enough to Manchester United's hopes of regaining the Premiership title, Brian Little had to go and rub salt in the wound. "He normally scores against me," said the Villa manager. "In the last two or three years he's stuck in a couple of hat-tricks against us - playing for Newcastle."

With the Geordies' David Ginola facing suspension and Keith Gillespie's vital wing play temporarily denied them because of a hamstring injury, Ferguson thought he was well placed to take advantage of his opponent's supposed weakness. But he did not allow for the profligacy of a pounds 7m striker which is becoming not so much an embarrassment as a handicap.

When the crowd pleaded for Paul Scholes with 20 minutes to go, it was for the purpose of replacing Cole rather than Lee Sharpe. It is an option Ferguson may have to consider from the off next time. Does he continue to back his man in the hope of striking a rich vein of form or does he risk denting his confidence still further by dropping him?

Hitherto Ferguson has displayed the type of blind faith reminiscent of those during the Gold Rush. Now he is at the point of packing up his spade and pan and calling it a day. His comments on the player afterwards were not for publication, not that he said anything that 42,667 other people could not see with their own eyes.

At least it made a pleasant change for a United defence, who conceded only four League goals at home throughout last season, to keep a clean sheet. In the absence of Gary Pallister, Gary Neville deputised splendidly and left Ferguson lamenting he was not an inch or two taller. "His father's 6ft 2in - life's not fair. I'd check the milkman."

Ferguson may have retained a sense of humour but after the start to the new year his team have had it is about time he removed the rose-tinted spectacles.

Ferguson came away from the game, as he went into it, desperately looking for signs of a faltering step by a Newcastle side, who unlike United have taken maximum points at home. "Maybe it's God's way. Maybe it will come in March," he said with a touch of Shakespearian foreboding. "It's murder when you lose away."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, G Neville, P Neville; Giggs, Keane, Butt, Sharpe (Scholes, 77); Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Parker, McClair.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath, Southgate; Charles, Taylor, Draper, Townsend, Wright; Milosevic, Johnson. Substitutes not used: Carr, Scimeca, Spink (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Bookings: Manchester United: G Neville, P Neville, Schmeichel, Irwin. Aston Villa: Draper.

Man of the match: Giggs. Attendance: 42,667.

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