Football: Defenders to the fore as United make a solid start

FC Kosice 0 Manchester United 3
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The Independent Online
Manchester United have made no secret of their intention to make the Champions' League their priority this season and last night they made a confident step in their chosen direction. Sure rather then spectacular, they nullified Kosice, drew them in and comfortably defeated them.

The fact the goals that broke the Slovakians were scored by defenders, Denis Irwin and Henning Berg, underlines the workmanlike character of a performance that was embellished by Andy Cole two minutes from time.

The result outweighed the need for flamboyance, however, as anything less then a win against opponents making their debut in the Champions' League proper would have placed a heavy burden on a United team trying to finish above Juventus and Feyenoord in Group B.

"It was a good result for us," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "The first half, we played really well, passing confidently and showing composure. It got a bit patchy after the interval but the second goal killed Kosice."

Deprived of much of their attacking potential by injury, United rode an inauspicious start before their tactic of a single spearhead, Cole, backed with runners from midfield began to prosper. By the end Kosice looked wholly baffled by the movement of their opponents.

That is not how the opening suggested things would pan out. Kosice had alarmed United as early as the first minute when Josef Kozlej's header looped by the post and only Peter Schmeichel's smart stoop to block a shot from Kozlek prevented an appropriate ending to a splendid move through United's left flank instigated by Vladislav Zvara's pass inside Irwin to Ivan Kozak.

The Republic of Ireland full-back was exposed then but United's formation insisted he attack down the flanks to give them width, and it was from one of these runs that they took the lead in the 30th minute.

Paul Scholes carved a huge hole in the Slovakian defence with a turn and pass to Cole and the gap was prised wider when he in turn pushed the ball to Irwin thundering in to the left of the area. His impetus took him near to the byline and an unlikely angle but he forced the ball under Ladislav Molnar's body.

Two minutes later it could have been 2-0 when David Beckham floated a pass over the Kosice defence. Karel Poborsky reached the ball before Molnar and as he pushed it to the side of the goalkeeper the pair collided. United appealed for a penalty, the referee ignored them.

If United rued Mr Sundell's leniency then they embraced it three minutes after half-time. An interchange of passes between Albert Rusnak and Kozlej put the former the danger side of Gary Pallister and as he was about to shoot his shirt was clearly pulled by the flaying centre back. Surprisingly the foul went unpunished.

That alarm over, United regained the initiative and might have scored in either the 53th or 55th minutes. On the first occasion Scholes' shot hit a post and bounced to Cole, who, although the ball was behind him, had an empty net to aim at. Too hurried, he scooped the ball high and wide. Two minutes later Beckham squared across the area to Cole, whose shot was on target this time but the goalkeeper saved to his left.

Kosice's reprieve lasted until the hour when United at last doubled their advantage. Beckham's free-kick arched tantalisingly between Molnar and Cole and when the goalkeeper miscued his punch the ball landed at Berg's feet. This time the empty goal was not missed.

Cole deserved a goal if only for his intelligence and selfish running, and his perseverance was rewarded in the 89th minute. A block tackle fell like an invitation for him and he thumped the ball past Molnar.

Kosice (3-5-2): Molnar; Semenik, Telek, Kral; Kozak, Sovic, Zvara, Janocko, Spilar; Lubarsky (Rusnak, h-t), Kozlej (Faktor, 76). Substitutes not used: Benko (gk), Bochnovic, Lapsansky, Cvirk, Majoros.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham (McClair, 75), Keane, Butt, Scholes; Poborsky; Cole. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Thornley, Sheringham, P Neville, Mulryne, Clegg.

Referee: L Sundell (Sweden).