Football: Cole powers the spice boys

Manchester United 2 Cole 19, Poborsky 61 Sheffield Wednesday 0 Attendance: 55,267
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Perhaps the presence at Old Trafford of two Spice Girls had something to do with it, but Manchester United showed they were still the wannabes of the Premiership yesterday when a comfortable victory over Sheffield Wednesday helped them restore their three-point lead at the top of the table over Liverpool.

A week ago, defeat at Sunderland following the selection of an under- strength team raised questions about United's attitude towards the ultimate domestic prize when a bigger one in Europe is beckoning. But after this result you would not bet against United having it both ways.

It was certainly the one United were looking for in advance of Wednesday's return leg against Porto in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. They were never rampant, and as a contest it was bloodless, but goals in each half were enough to subdue a Wednesday team for whom sound organisation was probably never going to be enough. Crucially for David Pleat's team there was a recurrence of the freezing in front of goal that affected them so disastrously against Wimbledon in the FA Cup, and had it not been for Kevin Pressman, surely one of the goalkeepers of the season, defeat could have been heavier.

The only cloud on United's horizon came in the form of a pulled muscle in the left thigh of Andy Cole, who had to leave the field almost as soon as he had put his team into a 20th-minute lead. It wasn't serious, Alex Ferguson, the United manager said, "but it must make him doubtful for Porto". For the silver lining Ferguson could look to Karel Poborsky, who came on for Cole and wrapped the game up for United a quarter of an hour into the second half.

Even then United seemed to resist turning on the style. Ryan Giggs squandered two good shooting opportunities and Eric Cantona was content to operate in a largely supporting role. Nicky Butt, making his first start since injuring his ankle on New Year's Day, grew in stature after a shaky first half, but without ever suggesting that he might keep the role of midfield enforcer ahead of Roy Keane, who becomes available again on Wednesday after completing a two-match suspension.

It could, however, have turned out very differently if, as they should have, Wednesday had taken the lead in the 10th minute. Matters had been even up until then, but a poor pass by Gary Neville played Butt into trouble just inside his own half, allowing Richie Humphreys to dispossess him and take the ball upfield. David Hirst was the spare Wednesday forward, in acres of space with only Peter Schmeichel to beat, but he scuffed his shot wide. "It was a banker," Ferguson said. "When he missed I thought it might be our day."

So it began to prove when Giggs played a pass through the middle to Cantona, whose deft lay-off found Cole making the overlap on the left. His low shot flashed across Pressman and into the bottom corner for only the striker's fifth goal of the season, but his fourth in nine games.

Pressman then improvised an outstanding save after Des Walker delivered the ball straight to the feet of Giggs, and Wednesday still looked in the game during the early part of the second half as United struggled to win the ball. But when Poborsky struck a rising shot past Pressman after Cantona and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had worked an opening on the right, they surrendered pretty tamely.