Football: Champions League - Solskjaer sets United on cruise control

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE: United 2 Sturm Graz 1Barcelona and Lazio are avoided in next phase as under-strength Old Trafford team secure the top spot
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The Independent Online
THE CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE qualification process is complicated enough to tax a nuclear physicist but Manchester United have done their best to keep their part as simple as possible. Last night's win over the limited Sturm Graz ensured they finished top of Group D and now their second phase is in the lap of Friday's draw.

First place means United will not be selected in the same group as those other heavyweights, Barcelona and Lazio, but after that not even Uefa, football's European governing body, which admitted there are around a thousand permutations, was unsure. Welcome to the new world of European football.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Roy Keane, with his third goal in as many matches, gave United their fourth win of the first phase but, frankly, the match was so low key it will be forgotten in the environs of Manchester quicker than a football chairman's promise to back his manager. Indeed, if it lingers anywhere it will be in Austria as Graz could celebrate in defeat, because the draw in the south of France between Marseilles and Croatia Zagreb enabled them to finish third and qualify for the Uefa Cup.

"Hopefully we can emerge from this group as an improving team," Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "Our experience last season showed we do look forward to the big matches and we are going to get them now. We've not been anything like we were last year but we haven't done badly."

United's team spoke volumes because Sir Alex hardly transmitted a "win at all costs" philosophy with his selection. David Beckham and Paul Scholes were suspended but the presence of Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke on the substitutes' bench was only as a precaution against things going radically wrong.

He might have been examining the clauses in that insurance policy pretty quickly because United began so sluggishly they could have been playing in another testimonial for their manager. Graz had struck the post through Ivica Vastic before the home team had got used to looking for Beckham on the right flank and finding Jonathan Greening in his place.

It took United 15 minutes to make their first threatening response and, in truth, they should have scored when Keane's cross was headed back into the six-yard box by David May. Andy Cole was first to this invitation but declined, volleying wide from close range. If Cole had been profligate then he was unfortunate six minutes later after Solskjaer had harried the Graz goalkeeper, Josef Schicklgruber, into dropping Gary Neville's cross. Cole turned sharply and rifled a low shot through a thicket of players only to find Gerald Strafner alert on the line.

United were on top but they did not have a monopoly of near misses and Graz should have opened the scoring after 22 minutes. Vastic span adroitly and thumped the ball against a United post and if Tomislav Kocijan had even a modicum of accuracy he had to score. Instead he volleyed over.

The game seemed to be drifting towards a draw that would suit both sides but the introduction of Phil Neville after 52 minutes increased the tempo. The first manifestation of that came with United's first goal after 56 minutes. Greening crossed and although a Graz defender was first to the ball, his header looped invitingly to the edge of the area. Waiting there was Solskjaer whose left-foot volley rocketed past Schicklgruber.

Ahead, United could be more expansive and 13 minutes later they made it 2-0. Giggs' corner was headed against the bar by the excellent May and Keane pounced on the rebound with trademark determination.

That should have settled the matter but United relaxed, the Austrians learned what was happening in Marseilles and when Giggs brought down Vastic and the Graz captain scored a penalty with four minutes remaining an unexpected result might have come about had it not been for two outstanding saves from Mark Bosnich. At the end the losers celebrated while the winners trudged off. They knew the true tests belong in the near future.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; G Neville, Berg, May, Irwin (Higginbotham,75); Greening (Cruyff, 64), Wilson (P Neville, 52), Keane, Giggs; Cole, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Stam, Yorke, Clegg, Van der Gouw (gk).

Sturm Graz (3-5-2): Schicklgruber; Strafner, Neukirchner, Prilasnig; Schopp, Mahlich, Angibeaud (Bardel, 70), Minavand, Martens (Reinmayr, 70); Vastic, Kocijan (Bochtler, 73). Substitutes not used: Szabics, Grobl, Sidorczuk (gk)

Referee: R Pedersen (Nor).

GROUP D FINAL TABLE

P W D L F A Pts

Man Utd (Q) 6 4 1 1 9 4 13

Marseilles (Q) 6 3 1 2 10 8 10

Sturm Graz 6 2 0 4 5 12 6

Zagreb 6 1 2 3 7 7 5

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