Football: Faintest praise for brilliant Beckham

Manchester United 3 Aston Villa 0; Scholes underlines importance to club and country as Villa are undone
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN hardly fault Sir Alex Ferguson in his handling of David Beckham. If ever there was a footballer with the temptations to go astray - money, glamour, spare time - it is him, yet give or take the odd flash of temper and some sartorial idiosyncrasies, he has stayed resolutely on the rails. Indeed, if he has not conformed in a player's world of quick dalliances, it is because he has a wife and a child.

A lot of that has to be down to Ferguson, whose iron rod has kept a squad of millionaires in comparatively quiet check, yet try to prise a compliment for Beckham out of the Tartan-eyed United manager and you would find it easier to extract praise for England.

"David Beckham played well?" Ferguson looked at the questioner as if he was priming a mine in his path. "I thought the two wide players did well for us today," he replied, which was a ridiculous response. Ryan Giggs had performed brightly in his fine-dribbling-but-one-cross-in-five way yet there was no comparison to the stream of invention from the opposite flank, and all three goals flowed from Beckham's gloriously-gifted right foot.

You must assume Ferguson is so fearful his impressionable midfielder will reach for the stars who inhabit his wife's firmament that he cannot allow liberal compliments in case it turns Beckham's head. Keep him unsure, keep his feet as close to the ground as is possible for a young man with a movie-star lifestyle.

As has been acknowledged, it has worked so far, but horses for courses, and on Saturday we had a perfect example of the United manager restraining one player and extravagantly praising the other. Paul Scholes is the quiet one in the Old Trafford organisation and Ferguson was as quick to laud him as he was reluctant to boost Beckham.

"He's the best midfield player England have got," he began, which suggests he excludes Beckham on the grounds he is a winger. "There's no one better at ghosting into the penalty area, and the timing of his runs and his touches are perfect. Villa marked Dwight Yorke very closely and made it hard for us all over the pitch - which is where Scholes comes in. He's got around 50 goals for us now, which for a midfielder is a superb record."

True to a point, even if Scholes had a hit-and-miss match that could have yielded four goals but for a dubious first touch. But, as Ferguson and the watching England manager Kevin Keegan would say, the important thing was that he got in the positions to squander the chances. Being there means a lot if you are striking from deep.

And, much to Keegan's relief, Scholes will be there for England against Scotland in the European Championship play-offs. He has a hernia problem that needs an operation but, with Nicky Butt out for another month, that has been postponed until European commitments allow in December.

"There's no urgency," Ferguson said. "He feels the pain after games, which is indicative of that kind of injury, but by the time the next game comes around he's OK. We've experienced this kind of situation before - Steve Bruce is a perfect example. He played for weeks with something similar."

Scholes' importance to club and country were evident in his goal. He had made a terrible mess of a 17th-minute chance but his confidence was undented, and when Beckham laid the ball in his path at the near post he swept it past David James.

Later Scholes delightfully back-heeled into Roy Keane's path for United's third but that goal, like the second, had stemmed from the right flank and it was left to the opposition to sing the provider's praises. "In David Beckham you have probably the best passer in world football over any distance - he can drop it into a bucket," the Villa manager John Gregory said. "He rivals Rivaldo for that ability."

United would probably prefer it if Gregory had not said that, although he is facing a losing battle when it comes to plaudits as Beckham is likely to be voted European Footballer of the Year. Then Ferguson will have to weigh up what matters most: his pride or his concern.

Goals: Scholes (29) 1-0; Cole (45) 2-0; Keane (64) 3-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; P Neville, Stam, Silvestre, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs (Wilson, 78); Yorke (Solskjaer, 65), Cole (Cruyff, 78). Substitutes (not used): Berg, Van der Gouw (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): James; Delaney, Calderwood, Southgate, Barry; Boateng (Stone, 65), Taylor, Hendrie, Thompson (Wright, 72); Dublin, Carbone (Merson, 75).

Substitutes (not used): Watson, Enckleman (gk).

Booking: Aston Villa: Barry.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Man of the match: Beckham.

Attendance: 55,211.