Football: Cole slips into cruise control

Manchester United 5 Cole 10, 65, Solskjaer 39, 69, Johnsen 74 Walsall 1 Boli 72 Attendance: 54,669
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The Independent Online
WALSALL'S only hope was that they would catch the champions on one of those occasions when they look only good, not exceptional. In a way, they did. It took an unfamiliar Manchester United most of the first half of this ultimately comfortable fourth-round victory at Old Trafford yesterday to establish their superiority, but once Andy Cole began to enjoy himself and some team understanding materialised, Walsall knew their own frail, attractive football would be waved away.

Remember what Jan Sorensen, Walsall's Danish manager had said of Alex Ferguson, his opposite number? "Alex should be having the sleepless nights. Just think if he loses, if we get a result - holy cow!"

When the shed door slammed and the dream was over, he was still smiling and praising his side for "not digging holes for ourselves on the edge of our area. What would be the point? We would have lost anyway." Ferguson generously added: "The game opened up for us because of the way they played. It was a credit to them that they were not happy just putting everyone behind the ball."

In other ways Ferguson showed Walsall less respect, electing to start with Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville on the bench and not risking the slightly injured Gary Pallister and unwell Nicky Butt. And that was even without Teddy Sheringham. The curious United arrangement allowed Walsall to gain early confidence, but in spite of Roger Boli's eye-catching inventiveness, they were soon facing the reality of the task. Clearly, they had not been issued with the statutory memo to mark Cole as tight as a thumbscrew. A low centre from Ben Thornley let Cole revel in space, turning on the ball and striking a sweet 10th-minute goal.

Yet Walsall were not prepared to be dismissed. John Hodge sent a searing shot towards the far post only to see a slight deflection deny him, and his neat ball-playing side were kept from losing hope when an elusive run from the half-way line by Cole ended in a shot splendidly touched round the post by James Walker in the visitors' goal. However, Walsall's position grew more difficult after 39 minutes when defenders again failed to intercept Cole and the ball came loose for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to place a second goal. United were flattered.

Walsall's lack of numbers and power in attack had been a disadvantage from the start and Boli's skill deserved better support. He cleverly sidestepped Ronny Johnsen on his own just after half time, but his shot struck the underside of the bar with Peter Schmeichel beaten. United sat up. Walker saved wonderfully well with his diving stretches to hold thundering shots from Paul Scholes, but when he came out and bravely blocked Erik Nevland, United's substitute, the ball ran loose and Cole took up the offer to score again.

That more or less ended Walsall's resistance. A clever back-heel from Scholes left Solskjaer with a stroll in to take the fourth. When Boli gained his deserved reward, brightly looping a header over Schmeichel from Jean Francois Peron's cross, Johnsen simply filched a fifth for United.