Football: Beckham rekindles raw memories

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon 2

Ardley 68, M Hughes 70

Manchester United 5

Butt 48, Beckham 66, 76, Scholes 81, Cole 87


Comparisons are starting to be made between Manchester United and New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team. These may be premature. It is impossible to envisage the All Blacks having an indifferent session or surrendering a significant lead as United did at Selhurst Park yesterday. But then, the All Blacks have never come across Wimbledon and in a multitude of other respects it was possible to see why the parallels had been drawn.

The English champions might have been up against it for most of the first half, they might have uncharacteristically lacked wit in changing their methods, and having gone ahead they might have committed the cardinal error of allowing tigerish opposition back into the contest. But, as no fewer than six goals arrived in 16 minutes of the second half, they finished with an irresistible flourish and were so captivating going forward that, by the end, Wimbledon were left trailing in their wake.

As ever, the Dons lacked for nothing in spirit and less determined, not to say less gifted, teams could receive a severe caning from this United side as the season wears on - just ask Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday.

Nothing encapsulated the difference in achievement, potential and ambition between the sides more than what the two managers had been up to during the Premiership break. Alex Ferguson had flown to South America to check on the form and fitness of the Chilean international forward Marcelo Salas and decided that the pounds 12m being asked by the Argentinian club River Plate was too much. Joe Kinnear, meanwhile, had been to watch Barnet.

If further evidence were needed that there is far more than a gap of eight league places between the teams it was demonstrated by United's omission from their starting line-up of David Beckham.

Still, this cannot conceal the mutual respect between the pair and it was easy to tell why United should feel as they do towards Wimbledon, who simply refused to allow them to play as they might wish throughout the first half. That they did not concede a goal was to do with indifferent finishing, splendid goalkeeping and a modicum of luck.

Carl Cort might have scored at least twice. A header, glanced in an attempt to ensure it was beyond Peter Schmeichel's reach went wide, and a shot from the right of the area also scurried past the post. Towards the end of the first half Schmeichel had to dash daringly from his line to dispossess Michael Hughes of the ball and a shooting chance.

Within three minutes of the resumption United were ahead, Ryan Giggs's deft ball to Nicky Butt surprising the Wimbledon defence and allowing the midfielder a clean, crisp shot. It was time for Beckham's entry. Wimbledon will remember him from last season when he scored that wonder goal from the half-way line. They will remember him more now. No sooner was he on than he drove home a cross from Paul Scholes.

But this was merely the start of an astonishing spasm of play in which both sides attacked vigorously and defended less so. Neil Ardley found United's defence in rare disarray to rifle home Wimbledon's first, and then Chris Perry's long ball put Michael Hughes clear for the second. A scintillating comeback beckoned then. Not a bit of it. A Beckham shot took a deflection for United's third and Scholes completed Andy Cole's darting movement for the fourth. Wimbledon had no sooner made three substitutions in the 83rd minute when Cole crashed in a lovely left-foot volley.

At the end, Wimbledon fans staged a prolonged and noisy, if peaceful, demonstration against yet more suggestions that the club might move to Dublin. They should know that, with United at their best, Dublin would not be far enough.