Football: Cole makes it a stroll

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Before the Porto, the storm. A two-goal deluge in 51 seconds early in the game ensured that Manchester United could thereafter enjoy a calm passage ahead of Wednesday's potentially choppy European Cup quarter-final first leg at Old Trafford. They say there are no easy games in the Premiership but this was as comfortable as they come.

It was yet more evidence of United's gathering potency as the championship nears its climax. Not for them the slip-up against lower-order opposition that befell Newcastle. United's 11th win in a run of 16 unbeaten League matches gives them a four-point lead at the top over Liverpool, who will need to eat into it at Aston Villa today.

"There is a good confidence in the team," said the United manager, Alex Ferguson. "I feel we are looking strong. We have really got the bit between our teeth now."

"Their phenomenal work rate is what makes them different," added his Coventry counterpart, Gordon Strachan, "what makes them so good."

The afternoon began with a moving moment. Before the match, the Coventry players lined up in front of Old Trafford's directors' box to applaud a guest there, their former player David Busst whose career was ended by an horrific broken leg sustained here last Easter. United will play in a testimonial for him later this season.

After that the home side were in no mood to show Coventry any more charity as they swiftly showed. You always fear for a defence with high numbers on their shirts and Gary Breen, No 25, and Alex Evtushok, No 23, at its heart were fast undone.

First Eric Cantona, returning with immediate impact after his two-match suspension, attempted to slip Andy Cole through. Breen read the situation well but succeeded only in turning the ball past the advancing Steve Ogrizovic and into his own net from the edge of the area.

Within a minute, David Beckham picked out Ryan Giggs beautifully with a long through pass and although Ogrizovic went down well to save at his feet, the ball ran to Jordi Cruyff wide on the left and from his low cross, Cole bundled the ball into the net off Eion Jess.

At the outset, one wondered how United might win the ball in midfield with Roy Keane absent injured, his ankle needing recovery time for Wednesday, and Beckham and Giggs given central roles with Cruyff and Karel Poborsky flanking them. A soft-centred Coventry, though, are just the side for which to be without an important player or two. They had not scored a goal in their seven previous visits and traditionally they have folded with only rare resistance.

After the opening salvo, it looked like a question of how many for United and, indeed, it should have been more by the middle of the first half. Cruyff again sent Cole in, but his side-footed shot was wide, to be followed immediately by two uncharacteristic misses by a ring-rusty Cantona.

Coventry forays forward were rare; as Strachan said afterwards: "For half an hour, the players were in shock." In an attempt to stem the tide, the manager sent Dion Dublin back into the defence, brought off Evtushok, the Ukrainian making his debut after his pounds 800,000 signing from Dnepr, to be replaced by Peter Ndlovu.

Though Darren Huckerby's pace offered an occasional outlet - his shot tipped over by Peter Schmeichel their only attempt on target in the first half - it remained a rearguard action for Coventry, however, one they came to grips with only after United's third goal one minute and 48 seconds into the second half. It was a flowing movement typical of much of United's work: Denis Irwin to Cruyff, to Cole, to Poborsky and a low shot from the right into the far corner.

United relaxed, making a flurry of substitutions to rest some central figures, although Cole particularly still threatened, glancing a header wide, then stabbing past. "The football in the first half was superb and it was understandable it dropped in the second, thinking about next Wednesday," Ferguson said. "We got careless."

Coventry profited with Noel Whelan, Ndlovu and Dublin all going close before the lively Huckerby scored the goal his persistence deserved. Receiving the ball in midfield, he weaved to within 20 yards of the United goal before driving a low shot across Schmeichel and into the corner of the net.

It was, though, but a pin prick to the giant and United will face Porto in sizeable heart.