Football: Confident United send out warning

Counter-attacking style has ended a goal drought in the Champions' League for Alex Ferguson's side.
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The Independent Online
"CARELESS"... "A lot of mistakes"... "not a great performance". One wonders what Alex Ferguson would have said if his team had conceded six in Copenhagen on Wednesday rather than scoring them? While Ferguson's response to the 6-2 win over Brondby was partly dictated by the philosophy of tempering victory with criticism and defeat with praise, he did admit himself delighted with United's finishing in their Champions' League tie.

Goalscoring has been United's downfall in previous European campaigns, with the club netting just once in four matches against Borussia Dortmund and Monaco in the 1996-97 European Cup semi-finals and 1997-98 quarter- finals respectively.

Most damning of all, especially against Dortmund, was the quality of finishing. Uefa figures revealed United to be among the worst in the competition when it came to getting shots and headers on target.

Not on Wednesday. In the first half they had six shots, three went in, two gained corners. In the second period they had eight attempts, seven of which were on target.

This is an impressive ratio and is partly due to confidence. United had scored 12 goals in their previous four matches, including five against Wimbledon last Saturday, and have now netted 11 in three Champions' League ties. Andy Cole, who is no longer snatching at chances, is clearly full of self-belief, as are Jesper Blomqvist, blossoming after a quiet start, Ryan Giggs, whose finishing has markedly improved, and Dwight Yorke.

"Not everyone can deal with playing for Manchester United," said Ferguson of Yorke. "Dwight has shown that he can and has settled in very well." Yorke, who reiterated the personal importance of the Champions' League given his slim chance of global recognition with Trinidad and Tobago, added: "It feels like I've been at Old Trafford for a year, not two months."

United's performance was much admired among the cognoscenti at yesterday's FA Coaches' Association annual conference in Birmingham. Counter-attacking was a central theme, and Andy Roxburgh, Uefa's technical director, said: "People do not think of Manchester United as a counter-attacking team but it is something they are very good at."

That was evident in the Parken Stadium and Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, added: "They demonstrated many of the aspects of play we have been talking about here. When you look at them playing like that with so many good young English players, and Villa top of the league with 10 Englishmen, it is very encouraging.

"United are certainly stepping on the gas again and if I was still managing in the Premiership I would be hoping I didn't have to play them for a few weeks."

That dubious honour will next fall to Derby County, who face United at Pride Park tomorrow. More pertinent to the future of the Premiership will be the respective form of United and Villa, who currently lead them by four points, when they meet on 5 December.

United should have a fair idea of their prospects of qualifying for the last eight of the European Cup by then, as they will have visited the Nou Camp for the return Champions' League tie with Barcelona on 25 November.

United should have eight points by then as, for all Ferguson's caution, they ought to defeat Brondby at home on 4 November. It will clearly be a difficult match for the Danes. Though their commitment to attack contributed to the scale of their defeat, results like Wednesday's are not supposed to happen any more. This is a world in which France can only put two past Andorra, and England were fortunate to get three against Luxembourg.

Yet United were not the only team to score six on Wednesday - Real Madrid matched them at home to Sturm Graz in Group C. In that section's other match Internazionale ended the last 100 per cent record in the tournament by defeating Spartak Moscow in Milan. Graz are the only team without a point and, together with Celtic's conquerors, Croatia Zagreb, probably the only teams effectively out of the running for a quarter-final place. The openness of the competition is illustrated by just six of the 24 teams remaining unbeaten, including Manchester United and Arsenal.