"Beckham was outstanding. He's distinguished himself. I don't think anyone matched him on the field," was the unequivocal endorsement of his manager Alex Ferguson, a tribute accepted by the recipient in that diffident manner of his, the antithesis of his extravagant on-field demeanour. "I was quite happy with the couple of crosses I put in, setting up a couple of goals, and other things I've done," Beckham reflected as he departed Old Trafford. Which was rather like the United supporter and TV chef Gary Rhodes suggesting that haute cuisine is just about throwing together a few ingredients into a pan.
When Inter suggested beforehand that their apprehension principally concerned United's supply line to the flanks, and from there to Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, their alarm could not have been more prophetic. Even precautionary measures to stem that copious flow had no effect against the player who at various times teased Aron Winter, Francesco Colonnese and Diego Simeone into submission, like a table dancer gyrating before a sweaty businessman, as he shamelessly flaunted his assets. The message was just as clear, too. You can look, but you can't touch.
Youri Djorkaeff, Inter's French international forward, who contributed so greatly to England's capitulation last month but here was rendered a peripheral force, attributed Yorke's brace to "lack of concentration. We knew that Beckham was very dangerous and had dedicated a lot of work in training to defending against right-wing crosses". He added, somewhat ruefully: "I would have preferred to concede goals in other circumstances."
Beckham's imperious ability to whip the ball in, often instantaneously, with a variety of trajectories and ranges while intuitively aware of where Yorke and Andy Cole are positioned, never ceases to astonish, principally because no other player can perform that feat at will, so consistently. Like Best before him, he is always the master of the association; never the ball.
Just as encouragingly, with his England career in mind, Beckham sensibly declined to seek retribution against his nemesis, the Argentinian Diego Simeone (in recognition of that notorious, pre-conceptional moment in England history, perhaps he should have suggested the name Deckem for his son?).
Indeed, after honour had been sought and largely retrieved by the Englishman, each team's best performers on the night swapped sweat-stained shirts on the conclusion of hostilities. Beckham has also singularly refused to respond to the torments of opposing supporters. Nor would his manager permit it. Ferguson may have his foibles; he can be a veritable Jerry Springer when it comes to football's psychological chat show. But there can be no doubting his insistence on the highest of standards. One could not imagine any of his players perpetrating an act like that committed by Robbie Fowler during his contretemps with Graeme Le Saux at Stamford Bridge last Saturday.
Le Saux has already offered to kiss and make up; Fowler has expressed regret but not contrition. However, it ill-behoves a club with such a distinguished history as Liverpool not to distance themselves from the abhorrent behaviour of their England international. Maybe action has been taken behind the battened-down hatches of Anfield; on this occasion, it needs to be seen to be done.
There is banter, and there are gross errors of misjudgement. The Scotland manager Craig Brown tells of a player who used to give a complimentary ticket to the man marking him before the match, with the words: "Here, you'll need this to get back into the game, son." That is acceptable; Fowler's actions were not, as the PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor also ought to emphasise to his members.
Le Saux, a thoroughly charming man off the field, is aware that reacting as he did with an elbow in the back of Fowler's head has merely made himself more of a target for rival supporters, as he will doubtless discover this afternoon. But as those who boorishly insult Beckham have found, it will be a futile exercise.
Today's FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea is the first of four exacting confrontations in 11 days for United. But Roy Keane wouldn't have it any other way. "I'd prefer to be playing big games than Mickey Mouse ones," declared the United captain as he dismissed the assumption that today's victors are certain Wembley visitors in May. "Last season, things were going well and we ended up with nothing. We won't be getting carried away with this result, far from it. Even if we get through against Chelsea there are some good teams still left in the tournament. They've played well against us, but not beaten us yet. Hopefully, we can put in a more improved performance than we did at Old Trafford against them in the league."
Whatever the outcome, they scarcely get any easier for United. League games at Liverpool and a revivalist Newcastle are immediately followed by the return at Inter on Wednesday week. Talk of which brings Ferguson's eyes aflame with the zeal of a witchfinder general. The utter faith in his team as potential European champions is almost religious in its intensity. Ferguson, who rejected any suggestion linking him with the England position as it was revealed that he is about to sign a new four-year pounds 5m contract with United, and is likely to accrue around pounds 3m from his testimonial year, knows that the performances of all his "key" players, as he describes the likes of Beckham, Yorke, Keane and Ryan Giggs, have simultaneously risen in a crescendo of power and virtuosity.
Ferguson has observed that a great deal of what had been said about the decline and fall of this particular Roman empire, the mega-wealthy Internazionale, was based on fact; that the vulnerability of their rearguard has been brutally exposed; and that it can be again at the San Siro in 11 days' time.
Yet, within the battle- hardened general of the European theatre of conflicts is a caution born of bitter experience. His first lieutenant, Keane, is similarly minded. It will require all the powers of leadership their sherpa can assemble to guide his men through daunting terrain to such a pinnacle.
Even before the euphoria had subsided on Wednesday night the captain had already placed United's accomplishment into the context. "Two-nil is an awful lead," pronounced the Irishman. "There's a long way to go. Three-nil would have been nice. As it is, you don't want to push too far forward trying to get an extra goal and get hit on the break, but you also don't want to sit back too far." Simultaneously, Djorkaeff was displaying a defiance not always evident in his defensive team-mates. "It is not lost yet. Each time we have suffered a blow, Inter have come back stronger afterwards. We will see in two weeks."
If those two had the effect of a couple of council noise patrol officers arriving at the grandest bash staged in the city for many a year and demanding the music be turned down, Ferguson would object. United have come too far to yield their advantage now with an abundance of the kind of triumphalism that once contributed to Neil Kinnock's election downfall, a presumption that could yet be the greatest menace to his team's advancement.
Neither that factor nor the return of a certain Ronaldo should deflect United from a semi-final place. Certainly not in Keane's estimation. "Even if he had played here we had a game plan to counter him," he said. "If he's ready for the second leg, we'll be ready, too."Reuse content