Football: Beckham leads treble makers

Manchester United 2 Aston Villa 1 Watson og 20, Beckham 46 Joachim 33 Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 55,189
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The Independent Online
ALEX FERGUSON'S darlings are clearly intent on being no duds of May. Undefeated this year, and for 27 games in all competitions, they entered the final month of an exacting season, in which they expect to lift three cherished trophies, with a gusto that belied the fact they were deprived of Jaap Stam, Andy Cole, Roy Keane, and Ryan Giggs.

Before the start, we remembered England's most successful international manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, whose death on Wednesday has, perhaps, put in perspective the much-hyped claims of many of today's highly-rewarded club managers. That does not apply to Ferguson, of course, who by any estimation will be regarded as one of the nation's greatest club managers if his team succeeds in securing the treble.

Fittingly, the Scot received yet another Manager of the Month award before the game. One can only hope that his loft is bearing up under the strain as much as he is, apparently, with the pressure of the final countdown. But as he wrote in his programme notes: "This is a special season, no matter what happens on the last lap, and you should enjoy it because you may never see the like again."

It is to be hoped that the minute's silence for Sir Alf was observed better elsewhere than Old Trafford, several voices tarnishing a moment that the remainder - and certainly those of a certain age - in a capacity stadium will have found intensely moving.

If they are to claim the title that Arsenal prised from them last season, United can be assured on yesterday's evidence that few are going to make it easy for them. If in their previous home league fixture they were to find Sheffield Wednesday almost servile in their submission, this was a different matter entirely.

Ferguson's men discovered that Villa had emerged from their mid-season slough with renewed vigour and purpose, with Paul Merson's appetite undiminished by his off-field problems, Steve Stone a galvanising force on the right, and a defence marshalled expertly by Gareth Southgate limiting the saves demanded of goalkeeper Michael Oakes.

John Gregory had rightly removed Mark Bosnich from his squad after the goalkeeper, out of contract in June, rejected a new deal with Villa. The fact that he has reportedly agreed initial terms with United, would have made his presence in goal yesterday untenable.

The Villa manager had no alternative, although he may have regretted it when United's first goal trundled past Oakes, with the telephone wires having gone down within the visitors' defence. But later, after Julian Joachim had equalised and David Beckham had restored United's lead, there were to be only plaudits for the goalkeeper when he made an outstanding one-handed save to claw Denis Irwin's penalty out of the air.

Oakes would have been intrigued, to say the least, when his counterpart, Peter Scmeichel, handled the ball outside the area, an offence - although in different circumstances - that brought his dismissal against Blackburn, although his punishment was subsequently rescinded by the FA. On this occasion, the officials failed to notice the Dane's misdemeanour.

When it comes to understudies, there is no more effective forward than Teddy Sheringham, who quickly developed an understanding with Dwight Yorke and the marauding midfielder Paul Scholes. After Blomqvist dispatched a fine cross from the left, Sheringham, beyond the far post, cleverly deposited the ball back in the danger zone only for Scholes to head the ball straight into a relieved Oakes' gloves. As the home onslaught continued, Beckham's free-kick had the goalkeeper beaten, but Southgate, on the line, headed the ball to safety. It was only a brief respite. The next minute Ferguson's men broke through with one of the untidiest goals seen at Old Trafford. Blomqvist opened the way for Scholes, who tried to set up Yorke, but apparently with the unwitting assistance of Steve Watson, the ball made its way past Oakes into the net. It was a curious affair that you felt might destroy Villa's spirit if it was at all fragile. The reverse was the case as they responded with a vengeance.

It was not until midway through the half that Gregory's men had troubled Schmeichel, and that opportunity was scarcely worthy of the description, Stone's cross being tamely headed towards goal by Merson. But the visitors became increasingly adventurous and it was no surprise when Stone's cross found their leading scorer Joachim, who duly forced home his 14th goal of the season.

It was rapturously received by the Villa faithful, who until then had contented themselves with abusing their former player, Yorke. He had looked menacing, but failed to display the lethal footwork that has made him the league's top scorer.

Dion Dublin nearly embarrassed United further before the interval with a flick from Merson's pass that bounced just the wrong side of a post.

But all their splendid recovery efforts were undone a minute after the restart when Beckham crashed home a trademark free-kick. Irwin contrived to spurn a chance from the spot after Watson was adjudged to have brought down Phil Neville. It would have given them a position of authority.

Instead they were forced to hang on.