Football: Careless United too big for their roots

Sheffield Wednesday 3 Manchester United 1
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ALEX FERGUSON'S acknowledgement that Manchester United have become a "big game" team is an indictment more damming than any of the crass errors which fed Sheffield Wednesday's insatiable appetite for this contest.

The United manager had little doubt that the very players who perpetuated this shambles of a performance at Hillsborough would regroup and rise to the challenge of Barcelona and the towering Nou Camp in Wednesday's Champions' League match. His faith may well prove justified.

He must, however, be deeply concerned that United have become vulnerable to the "lesser match", a character defect which threatens to undermine their grander aspirations: many more offerings like this and they will not have the "big game" to anticipate and inspire them.

This trait has been apparent for some time. It was evident as United stumbled in front of Arsenal's galloping hooves last season. They lost at Southampton and they lost at Sheffield Wednesday.

In fact, they had won on only one of their previous eight League trips to Wednesday, a wretched sequence which should have guarded against any complacency this time. Palpably, it did not.

United opened at a leisurely, nonchalant pace which bordered on arrogance. Mostly, the football was neat and intricate. It might as well have been embroidery on the soles of their socks.

They injected a little more urgency after Peter Schmeichel had almost defied credibility by throwing into his net a less than awesome shot from Niclas Alexandersson and the Andy Cole-Dwight Yorke alliance had conjured a fine equaliser for the former. Memo, no doubt, to Glenn Hoddle. Had United been awarded a penalty when Denis Irwin was floored by Alexandersson the match might have taken a different course.

Instead, Wednesday held on through their most anxious spell and United reverted to their laissez-faire approach to proceedings, seemingly convinced that the natural course of events would deliver them the points.

Further indifferent goalkeeping by Schmeichel, and mistakes in front of him, paved the way for Wednesday to plunder two more goals. They seized their opportunities with a relish shared by the majority of a capacity crowd, and by the end were worthy winners. Wim Jonk was rewarded for his consistent and resourceful display with his first goal for the club, while Alexandersson doubled his Premiership tally with the flourish of a player tapping new reserves of conviction. And at the back, Des Walker and company were self-assured and resilient.

And yet for all that, the fleeting glimpses of United's superior technique and movement rendered their sloppy capitulation unforgivable. This was, frankly, the type of match they should be taking by the scruff of the neck and ringing the life out of. Anything approaching competence would have lifted them to the top of the table.

Carelessness came over the team like a rash. The breakdown in communications between David Beckham and Jaap Stam, which presented Alexandersson with the chance to score Wednesday's third goal, was laughable.

However, Beckham and Stam are in credit this season and can be relied upon to deliver more than they draw in future. Schmeichel no longer inspires such confidence. A couple of seasons ago he probably would not have handed Jonk his goal, let alone fumble that first-half effort from Alexandersson.

These, alas, are not isolated lapses. The great man showed signs of decline last winter and blunders this autumn have cost United dear. His reluctance to come for corners in the home match in Barcelona shifted the psychological balance of power and allowed the Spaniards to recover, while his overreacting rush from his goalmouth in Munich gifted Bayern a late equaliser.

Suddenly that offer of Mark Bosnich by Aston Villa manager John Gregory for pounds 1m now looks a tempting proposition. Considering the prizes and riches at stake, that could be regarded as cheap at the price, even for half a season's additional service.

Wednesday could also be accused of being a "big game" team, because this was their first victory since they welcomed Arsenal, the champions, to Hillsborough, seven matches back.

As Danny Wilson, Wednesday's manager, observed, his players required no motivating oratory from him to fire them up for this match. Their task is to acquit themselves with equal diligence and fervour for the more mundane fixtures. Their very survival in the Premiership depends on it.

Wilson is urging his team to sustain this form into next week's away game against Chelsea. Perhaps more significant will be the two subsequent matches, at home to Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic. Should Wednesday successfully negotiate them they will confront the rest of the season with genuine optimism. And since Paolo Di Canio is due back in a month, the quest for salvation ought then to be a pushover.

Goals: Alexandersson (14) 1-0; Cole (28) 1-1; Jonk (55) 2-1; Alexandersson (72) 3-1.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Srnicek; Atherton, Walker, Thorne, Hinchcliffe; Alexandersson, Sonner, Jonk, Rudi; Booth, Carbone. Substitutes not used: Clarke (gk), Sanetti, Humphreys, Stefanovic, Magilton.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, Stam, G Neville, Irwin (Brown, 65); Beckham, Keane (Solskjaer, 83), Scholes, Blomqvist (Butt, 57); Cole, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Berg.

Referee: David Elleray (Harrow).

Bookings: Manchester United Scholes, Jonk.

Man of the match: Jonk.

Attendance: 39,475.