Football: Fixtures crowd in on United

Everton 0 Manchester United 2
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As he awaits tonight's collision of Manchester United's closest championship rivals, Alex Ferguson may be tempted to echo the sentiments of a fellow Scot a quarter of a century ago. Before a match between two of the three clubs vying with Liverpool for the title, Bill Shankly told their managers: "I hope you both lose."

Ferguson, for whom a draw at Highbury would be the next best thing, made the customary noises after this comfortable defeat of Everton about preferring to focus on his own team's form and results. Both have been good enough to encourage hopes at Old Trafford of a European and domestic "double". Their manager, typically, has spotted dark clouds on the horizon.

Not in the shape of Borussia Dortmund, nor even the visit to Anfield which the Premiership computer inserted between the two legs of the semi- final. No, the source of his anxiety is an old-fashioned fixture pile- up. With United already scheduled for three games in the season's final nine days, Ferguson sees the same period as the only possible slot for the home match against Newcastle unless they are allowed an extension.

Precedent reveals legitimate cause for concern. Five years ago next month, United took a two-point lead and a game in hand into a run of four matches in seven days. They won only one. Leeds, having had the good sense to make early exits from both cups and thus congestion-free, took advantage.

That spring, United were over-reliant on Mark Hughes. When he went 11 games without scoring, it was symptomatic of a wider weariness. On the evidence of Saturday's quickfire counter-attacking, no such malaise is yet afflicting United. Moreover, the goals are being evenly distributed.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's strike "out of nothing", as Ferguson put it, made him the seventh United man to net in March. The Norwegian, unknown nine months ago, now has a better ratio of League goals per starting appearance (13:21) than Hughes ever managed. A soft second by Eric Cantona, followed by Peter Schmeichel's wondrous save from David Unsworth's overhead kick, allowed United's fans to prove that the harrowing retreat from Oporto had not blunted their wit. "Two-nil and we've got jet lag," they sang.

Allowing for poetic licence, the words summed up the growing chasm in quality between the teams. Back in August, Everton led 2-0 at United before drawing; they were above them as recently as December. United have since amassed 35 points from 14 matches. Joe Royle's side, who had neither the variety nor the vitality to join the list of those who have prospered against the champions after their European exertions, have taken nine and remain two wins short of safety.

Royle took an unnecessary gamble by dropping Neville Southall - a week after he kept a clean sheet - when experience was likely to be crucial. Paul Gerrard was at fault for both goals, yet the failure was collective.

One tires of noting Everton's fixation with aiming mindlessly for Duncan Ferguson's head; how much more tedious it must be for Goodison regulars. Perhaps more than any crowd in the country, they demand technical excellence.

Everton's gangling striker, who should have been sent off for elbowing David May in the face during the first half, received only one cross which allowed him to attack the goal. At least his potential is evident, his commitment beyond question. Nick Barmby has taken on roles up front, in midfield and between the two without looking a pounds 5.75m player in any. His continued inclusion in the England squad is baffling.

Barmby was limping in the closing stages and looks set to follow United's Pallister and David Beckham in dropping out of the Mexico friendly. A degree of scepticism is inevitable in view of Neil Webb's claim that Alex Ferguson invented injuries to stop him playing for England. In his search for a replacement centre-back, Glenn Hoddle may have called United's bluff by picking the uncapped but in-form May.

Goals: Solskjaer (34) 0-1; Cantona (79) 0-2.

Everton (4-3-1-2): Gerrard; Barrett, Watson, Unsworth, Phelan; Thomsen (Rideout, h-t), Parkinson, Speed; Barmby; Ferguson, Stuart. Substitutes not used: Short, Hottiger, Branch, Southall (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; Irwin, May, Pallister (Johnsen, 38), P Neville; Beckham (McClair, 81), Keane, Butt, Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Cruyff, Scholes, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury). Bookings: Everton: Ferguson. United: May.

Man of the match: Butt.

Attendance: 40,079.