Ferguson's lost boys

FA Premiership: United's summer crisis extends to the field while the champions are grateful to Shearer
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The Independent Online
By Ian Ridley

Aston Villa 3

Taylor 14, Draper 27, Yorke pen 37

Manchester United 1

Beckham 45

Attendance: 34,655

PREPARED, says Aston Villa's motto, and they were; Manchester United, by contrast, looked like unfinished articles. Stripped by sales, suspensions and injuries to their main players, they fielded a team with an average age of 22 and were given a sharp lesson in Premiership realities by an eager, experienced outfit. The kids may be all right - but not just yet.

There was promise in United's spirited second-half performance, but by then the damage had been done. In the first they had been swept aside by a side playing bright, inventive football which yielded three goals and mirrored Villa Park's sunny optimism. "We felt we were quite adventurous and mobile," the Villa manager, Brian Little, said.

Indeed, Villa's pounds 10m summer outlay looks well spent. Mark Draper, a scorer on his debut, was the game's dominant figure, and Savo Milosevic showed glimpses of intelligent running and sharp finishing. Gareth Southgate slipped neatly into a three-man central defence in which Paul McGrath was again a rock.

Both sides, indeed, fielded three centre-backs, with Paul Parker and Gary Neville flanking Gary Pallister. Villa quickly revealed themselves the more comfortable with the system, however, and profited accordingly. Only in the second half, after Ferguson had reorganised to a more familiar 4-4-2, did they get in the game.

In the centre of midfield, meanwhile, Draper established an immediate authority over Roy Keane, something United's formation was designed to counter, according to Alex Ferguson later. "The centre of our defence is our first point of control," the United manager said. "But credit to Villa. They worked ever so hard to close us down, to hassle us and to force us into errors. We didn't show the conviction in our passing which we have come to expect."

Dwight Yorke also found a happy hunting ground between Parker and Philip Neville, one of six United players aged 20 or under, and it was from there that Villa's first goal came after only 13 minutes. Yorke sent in a cross from the left that was allowed to reach Gary Charles beyond the far post and from his low cross Ian Taylor beat Peter Schmeichel to the ball to touch home.

In another 13 minutes the lead was doubled. Alan Wright's crossfield ball found Yorke, this time on the right, and after a penetrating run he slipped the ball to Milosevic, who touched it on in turn to Draper just inside the penalty box on the left. With Schmeichel diving in anticipation of a better-struck shot to the far corner, he instead sidefooted into the near for a debut goal.

With United in disarray, a third followed nine minutes later. Milosevic chased Draper's long ball and as he sought to round Schmeichel, the Dane hauled him down. Yorke sent the penalty to Schmeichel's left as the goalkeeper dived to the right.

It was breathless stuff, especially for United. Ferguson saw them as bad goals, down to individual errors rather than the system, but then coaches always say that. By half-time, though, they had managed only two real attempts on goal, Paul Scholes twice putting Nicky Butt through. One shot was blazed over and the other merely guided into Mark Bosnich's arms.

Ferguson's reorganisation at half-time worked well, the more so as Villa grew in complacency and had to adjust after losing Milosevic with a dead leg that should have healed in time for Wednesday's match at Spurs.David Beckham on the right offered United a more creative option.

Chances followed and Bosnich was forced into two fine saves from Keane and Brian McClair. It was from these two, and the other senior men, that United might have expected more. A goal early on might have made a match of it, but Beckham's 25-yard shot, deflected home came too late for United to entertain thoughts of a point.

But they would not have deserved one. More will be known about United on Wednesday against West Ham when Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister are reunited in defence and, possibly, Andy Cole plays some part. Yesterday, though, their latest strip was fair reflection: a strand of silver but dominated by grey.