Ferguson's nine-minute wonders

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 4

Giggs 1, 4, Scholes 8, Cole 69

Southampton 1

Shipperley 85

Attendance: 39,301

PERHAPS Manchester United should follow the example of other leading members of the British aristocracy and go on television to explain themselves. What right have they, neutral observers would want to know, to play as they did so thrillingly, if so briefly, at Old Trafford yesterday?

This season began amid confident forecasts that it would be one of consolidation for United, of ensuring they did not fall too far off the pace. But since the opening-day defeat at Villa Park they have, as members of the nobility appear wont to do these days, confounded all expectations. For 10 minutes against Southampton they were as majestic as they were irresistible, and by the end of them United were also three goals up.

They were helped by a casual Southampton approach which bordered on slovenliness. The visitors were without their key performers, the suspended Matthew Le Tissier and the injured Barry Venison, whose stiff back prevented his participation, and could not have let these absences show earlier had they rehearsed it in training. But the speed, fluency and accuracy of United's opening manoeuvres were quite as significant as anything Southampton did not have to offer. Most of the home side may be young, vibrant and hungry, but at the hub of it all were Eric Cantona, most noble of the lot, and the excitingly regalvanised Ryan Giggs, who was given a free role by his manager, Alex Ferguson.

"I'm enjoying where I'm playing," Giggs said. "I've not got a favourite position - I don't mind where I am as long as I'm in the team. This new position seems to get me more involved and when we play like this it's great to know the crowd get a buzz."

Giggs and Cantona were both involved in the 15 seconds it took United to take the lead. Paul Scholes swept a long ball from out on the right beyond the far post. Cantona had first to retrieve it and then control it. This he did in one, nonchalant, movement and then pulled the ball back into the path of Giggs, whose curling shot screeched past Dave Beasant.

Barely three minutes had passed before the Welshman, flying in a midfield role rather than down the wing these days and relishing it, had scored a second. He deprived Richard Hall of the ball, caught glaringly in possession, just beyond halfway. The Southampton defence was in every place except where it ought to have been as Giggs charged his way to goal without either looking like being caught or missing when he got there.

In the sixth minute David Beckham hit the bar and before the ninth was out, Scholes had increased the lead to an untouchable three with his seventh Premiership goal of the season. His close-range strike was clean as a whistle but Cantona's deft little flick across the six-yard box which allowed him to make it was a delight.

The question now became one of whether United's young tigers could beat the nine goals they sent past a beleaguered Ipswich last season. To which the answer was soon to arrive in the negative. Maybe it was too much to expect such a thunderously lucid start to continue, maybe Southampton somehow regained a modicum of composure and tenacity. But whatever, the game drifted.

For long enough it became as tepid as once it had been scalding and Ferguson, could not quite conceal his disappointment afterwards. Cantona spent much of his time threading through-balls for Andy Cole to little effect, but at least the striker managed a goal when he headed in a corner from Beckham. He still, however, slightly conveys the impression of a man unsure whether to pass or to strike, a forward's worst nightmare.

Southampton scrambled a belated goal through a close-range prod from Neil Shipperley. But by then the match was 85 minutes old and had been over for 77 of them.

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