Football: Ferguson hard to please

Manchester United 3 Coventry City 0
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The Independent Online
English football used to congratulate itself for its equality. It is not like Scotland, or on the continent, it was said, there are no easy games. This match suggested otherwise.

It was no coincidence that last year the top five in the Premiership mirrored the elite of 12 months previously. Money and talent are going in just a few directions so that there is an imbalance. The haves are getting more, the rest splash money around in the downmarket manner of the big clubs but with a growing realism they are spending for survival not glory.

Which is why you get managerial reactions like those at Old Trafford. Gordon Strachan came and went from the press room like the wind, scattering comments like "I'm proud" and "the team have improved out of sight" behind him. The arch realist, Alex Ferguson, was far more subdued, happy with the result but irked that his charges had performed with lack of urgency.

"We played like a team who felt they could win when they wanted to," he said. "It wasn't a case of disrespect for Coventry, it was the number of games they have to play in a season. There was too much relaxation, not enough edge to their game."

With a scantily veiled warning that more of the same would not be tolerated, he added: "Maybe a change of personnel would do well in these games."

A team for the big matches, a team for the bread-and-butter ones - when you have squad with 20 internationals in it, you can afford to think along such luxurious lines.

Saturday was a day of mental rest for the champions. United had their psychological cushion plumped up for them by Andy Cole's goal after 76 seconds and then relaxed. Coventry troubled them but in the manner of a small dog yapping at a larger animal. At any moment you expected a big paw to re-establish order.

Liverpool try this sort of thing, usually to their own detriment, but they do not have the solid core to their team that United possess. United might switch off but Nicky Butt, who was exempt from criticism, and Roy Keane throw a spiky thicket in front of the back four and even when Ryan Giggs and David Beckham put flash before function in possession, they chase like fury to win the ball back when they lose it.

The third goal, seconds from the end, exemplified United. Giggs sloppily gave the ball away but raced across the field to hustle Kevin Richardson. Suddenly Coventry, who had expectations of an attack, were back-pedalling in the face of stung talent and could not cope. Giggs slipped the ball through and Karel Poborsky, whose hair has gone a permed transformation from mess to Monroe, chipped past Steve Ogrizovic.

Coventry had done little wrong but had been punished. It is this ability to from reverse into fifth gear in the blink of an eye why United have scored eight times this season and conceded none.

That goal, coupled with Roy Keane bundling the ball into the net after 71 minutes, gave the scoreline a distorted look in comparison to the play. Coventry worked prodigiously, hit the post with an overhead kick from Dion Dublin and deserved a closer margin of victory.

"With a bit of luck we could have taken something from this game," Strachan said. "After five games, we'd like a few more points, but I've seen individuals improving. I'm very happy with that."

Ferguson was in agreement. "It was flattering," he said. "Coventry played like a team who want to go somewhere." Sadly for those who prefer football democracy to oligarchy that somewhere, like that for the vast majority of the Premiership, will be a short of the big five.

Goals: Cole (2) 1-0; Keane (71) 2-0; Poborsky (89) 3-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, P Neville (Irwin, 66); Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Sheringham, Cole (Poborsky, 66). Substitutes not used: McClair, Curtis, Van der Gouw (gk).

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Nilsson, Shaw, Williams, Burrows; Telfer, Richardson, Hall, Salako; Huckerby, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Lightbourne, Borrows, Soltveldt, Johanson, Hedman (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Booking: Coventry: Nilsson.

Man of the match: Butt.

Attendance: 55,074.