reports from Rotterdam
Manchester United 3
The conviction that this might be Manchester United's year in the Champions' League gathered pace last night when they comprehensively defeated Feyenoord in Rotterdam. Certainly no team is accumulating such a sequence of victories.
Even a perceived weakness, their finishing, has taken an altogether different appearance with the sudden and dramatic burst of form from Andy Cole. Last night he got his hat-trick to take his personal tally to eight goals in his last three matches, while ensuring that United have taken maximum points from their four European matches.
The hapless figure who looked irredeemably lacking in confidence only two weeks ago with his lapses in front of goal against Feyenoord at Old Trafford suddenly can barely miss. His was the first United hat-trick in the European Cup since Denis Law against Waterford in 1968 and already United have scored more times this season - 11 - than they managed in their whole European campaign last season.
Calm and assured, the English champions produced the epitome of a classic away performance in Europe, letting their opponents comes at them and counter-punching with quick, dangerous breaks.
Feyenoord did manage to break through when Igor Korneev turned sharply and shot past Peter Schmeichel, but that was after 87 minutes of banging their heads against the wall of United's defence.
Alex Ferguson had advocated a policy of patience and caution before this match, a message that was ignored by a section of the travelling supporters, who were involved in skirmishes with Feyenoord fans in one corner of the ground immediately prior to the kick-off.
Riot police brought order with a charge which was considerably more dramatic than events on the field, where United imposed their control.
David Beckham withdrew to protect United's right flank and Feyenoord were reduced to passing sideways in an attempt to find a way through. It took 20 minutes for them to get a meaningful shot at Schmeichel and even then Giovanni Van Bronckhorst's shot was too weak to worry the United goalkeeper.
Patricio Graff's run and cross from the left two minutes later caused more alarm, but United were beginning to make inroads into the Feyenoord defence themselves, Cole forcing Jerzy Dudek to save low to his right .
The Dutch were constantly troubled by Cole's pace and on the half hour United went ahead. Beckham won a tackle on the right and Gary Neville launched a long ball over Bernard Schuitemann's head. Against most players the defender would have cleared, but Cole's extraordinary speed took him ahead of Schuitemann, and when he tried to hook the ball away, it met the United player's leg at the same time and looped over Dudek's head.
There was an element of fortune about that goal but United's second, after 44 minutes, was a masterpiece of quick thinking and passing. Beckham crossed perfectly for Cole to sidefoot in from eight yards.
Van Bronckhorst crashed a shot against the bar from 25 yards just after the interval, but this was merely an interruption to United's superiority.
Giggs did everything but score after 54 minutes when one on one with Dudek. The winger chipped over. However, he found the conclusion to match the build-up 20 minutes later when he went round the keeper and passed back to Cole, who shot into an empty net.
Denis Irwin was carried off after 82 minutes following a crude lunge from Paul Bosvelt and was taken to hospital for observation. Ferguson was furious with that challenge, as well as other incidents, claiming Feyenoord should have had two players sent off. Gary Neville also alleged he had been elbowed in the face and spat at.
Ferguson admitted confronting his opposite number, Geert Meijer, but said: "He referred to the first game and Beckham's challenge and if that's the way he's thinking, it's insane. If you are a coach, you have to have some principles."
It was the only blot on an otherwise good night for United.
Feyenoord (3-5-2): Dudek; Van Gobbel, Van Wonderen, Van Gastel; Schuitemann, Bosvelt (Zwijnenberg, 81), Boateng, Van Bronckhorst, Graff (Claeys, 34); Korneev, Cruz (Vos, 76). Substitutes not used: Petry (gk), Picun, Sanchez, Glaucio.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Irwin (P Neville, 82); Beckham, Butt, Scholes (Poborsky, 76), Giggs; Sheringham, Cole (Solskjaer, 76). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), McClair, Thornley, Curtis.
Referee: S Puhl (Hungary).Reuse content