Football: Cole and Solskjaer the perfect partnership
Monday 26 January 1998
Walsall had thoroughly enjoyed themselves and Derek Mountfield, reliving his youth, had been at the forefront of the post-massacre jollity, but he did have some serious predictions to make: Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could become as good as Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish.
"I've always regarded Rush and Dalglish as the best I've seen," the 35- year-old central defender said, "and the comparison is difficult because Cole and Solskjaer are younger and still learning. But in four or five years I don't see why they can't become as good. They have the potential.
"They make so many dangerous runs behind you which makes them so hard to mark. They come alive in or near the area. United keep the ball on the floor, too, playing to their strengths. At the end I wanted to come away with either of their shirts, so I could have gone to bed thinking: `I've got you at last'."
Mountfield was being hard on himself because he was often the rock around which United swirled in this FA Cup fourth-round tie. His anticipation was exemplary, his heading commanding and, if he was as quick as he is strong, Cole and Solskjaer might have had a less fruitful time. But then young Premiership defenders find it hard to live with their fleet-footedness, never mind a player whose greatest day came 14 years ago in the 1984 FA Cup final.
The generosity extended beyond Mountfield to the whole Walsall team, because this was as open a match as you could expect in the circumstances. The Second Division side did not man the barricades in the time-honoured fashion of the competition, but tried to match the champions with football. Even with a weakened United, the result was inevitable.
"Matches like this come every 20 years or so," Jan Sorensen, the Walsall manager, said, "and we could have dug graves in front of our goal and kicked the ball away or we could enjoy it. We decided to give it a go. At least the boys gave themselves a chance."
They did, although it was a one-punch possibility of the out-gunned boxer. Roger Boli hit a post and scored with a delightful header that looped over Peter Schmeichel, but these were isolated trickles against a torrent. United could have won this tie by a landslide and probably would have done but for a series of athletic contortions by the goalkeeper, James Walker.
Only the Walsall players were privy to the pre-match talk but somewhere in the instructions must have been a warning not to allow the striker in the hottest streak in the Premiership time to turn and pick his spot, but that is what the visitors allowed Cole to do. Once he had beaten Walker from the edge of the area the match was over as a contest.
Walsall seemed petrified of Cole's pace, melting in front of one glorious charge that was denied only by Walker's best save of many and, as panic spread whenever he had the ball, space opened for others, notably Solskjaer, who matched his striking partner in claiming two goals.
The Norwegian has had a difficult season to date, dropping behind Cole and Teddy Sheringham in the pecking order, but he is an outstanding goal poacher - better than Cole in terms of coolness in the furnace of the area - and although his form has slipped, he has still scored eight times in 13 starts.
At the end, Mountfield asked Solskjaer to adhere to the normal post-match formalities, but was thwarted by United's strange club policy of not swapping shirts. It summed up the afternoon: out of reach.
Goals: Cole (9) 1-0; Solskjaer (35) 2-0; Cole (65) 3-0; Solskjaer (67) 4-0; Boli (71) 4-1; Johnsen (73) 5-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin (Clegg, 24), Berg, Johnsen, P Neville; Beckham, McClair, Scholes (Mulryne, 68), Thornley (Nevland, 64); Cole, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: G Neville, Giggs.
Walsall (4-4-2): Walker; Evans, Mountfield, Viveash, Marsh; Watson, Keates, Porter, Peron (Blake, 88); Hodge, Boli. Substitutes not used: Naisbett, Roper, Platt, Ricketts.
Referee: P Durkin.
Booking: Manchester United: Solskjaer.
Man of the match: Walker.
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