Football: Cole adds to plight of Pleat

Manchester United 6 Sheringham 13, 63, Cole 20, 38, Solskjaer 41, 75 Sheffield Wednesday 1 Whittingham 69 Attendance: 55,259
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Manchester United face their championship rivals Arsenal next weekend and a midweek Champions' League match against Feyenoord in elated mood. Goals again tumbled in at Old Trafford yesterday, sending Sheffield Wednesday stumbling deeper into trouble and their manager, David Pleat, further into familiar territory. His future at Hillsborough is surely brittle but he said last night: "I love the game too much to walk away."

Given the evidence of latest form, it would have been difficult to set up a more likely mis-match than yesterday's. United had demolished Barnsley 7-0 while Wednesday had lost 3-1 at home to Crystal Palace. Pleat has said that in spite of his team's disturbed defending, he felt "very calm" - to which the irresistible rejoinder had to be "before the storm".

Curiously, United's whirlwind was slow to evolve and they had to batten down and protect themselves against a prolonged early Wednesday assault. With Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin withheld because of slight injuries and big games ahead, United lacked wit. Teddy Sheringham took a deep supporting role to Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and at first looked ineffective.

The re-arrangement faltered but settled when Alex Ferguson moved Solskjaer wide. Suddenly, after 13 minutes, United gelled. Sheringham played a 1- 2 with Solskjaer and completed the move precisely with a gentle, accurate sidefoot shot beyond Kevin Pressman. Six minutes later Pressman was again helpless after Solskjaer cut into the edge of the penalty area to push the ball into a congested goalmouth. Cole was in the middle of it all as Des Walker tried to clear, only to have the ball rebound off Mark Pembridge and back into goal from Cole.

To that point Wednesday, in the words of Pleat, had "stuck out their chests" and played well, something they emphasised when Peter Schmeichel had to summon all his agility to save off the line from Benito Carbone's virtually point-blank header. But their discomfort multiplied. After 38 minutes a cross from David Beckham found Cole unmarked. He headed past the already depressed Pressman, who moments later managed to deflect away a testing drive from Sheringham with a despairing outstretched foot.

He need not have bothered. Before half-time United had beaten him for a fourth time. Beckham's cross was controlled by Solskjaer, who shot instantly. Pressman was again left without a chance or assistance.

Understandably, United approached the second half casually with the confidence of the training ground. That at least allowed Wednesday some scraps of hopeful possession which saw Guy Whittingham fail to stretch high enough when Schmeichel was beaten by Jim Magilton's cross. Richie Humphreys, one of Wednesday's substitutes, had a header cleared off the line by Gary Neville but then it was back to the familiar theme.

Beckham was a permanent terror. His free-kick in the 62nd minute skimmed off the forehead of Sheringham and again beyond Pressman for United's fifth. Only by ignoring a Wednesday breakaway four minutes later did United concede a fraction of their advantage. Whittingham was allowed to run a quarter of the length of the pitch. Schmeichel plunged at him but the ball spun away and across the line behind him.

Now it was pure exhibition by United and sheer purgatory for Wednesday. The goal that really demonstrated their superiority came at the end when Solskjaer took possession coming into the Wednesday penalty area. He stared hard at the space beyond Pressman towards the far post and found it with a curling shot that he made seem as easy as plucking a ripe apple.