Football: Giggs' welcome reminder

Return of the Welsh winger keeps Manchester United in pole position in Premiership
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The Independent Online
Coventry City 0 Manchester United 1

Giggs 78

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 22,596

WITH A lead at the top of the Premiership to maintain for the visitors and the threat of relegation never far from Coventry's minds, this was not a game for anyone to have divided attentions. Both Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, and Gordon Strachan, his counterpart at Coventry, are feeling the stresses and strains at opposite ends of the league table too acutely to be able to afford to have their thoughts anywhere but on earning points.

As it was, Coventry went without reward but not without merit after a defensive performance of the highest calibre. That defence had been the backbone of an unbeaten record at home that stretched back seven games and four months before this match. But it has been a bad week for Strachan, who saw his side beaten at Everton in the FA Cup last week and then lose on the road to Newcastle in midweek. Yet he remained philosophical as Ryan Giggs' goal sent them to a third defeat in seven days while other results ensured that they dropped into the relegation zone.

"The football gods send you these weeks to test you and make you stronger characters," Strachan said, "but I've never crumbled. It's been a week I want to forget - but then you look at the league table."

For Ferguson, looking at the table means the relief of seeing that United's four-point advantage remains secure despite wins for Chelsea and Arsenal.

Giggs was given a start for the first time in two weeks as Ferguson wanted him to prove his fitness after a hamstring injury with the European Cup quarter-final first leg against Internazionale only 10 days away. Not only did he score the goal with 12 minutes remaining but he lasted the distance on a pitch that would have seemed like a billiard table compared to the Old Trafford mudbath, but which still cut up from the start.

"Giggs needed the game and came through great," Ferguson said. "There was no point leaving it until the Inter game to see if he was fit." But if the Welshman's return was good news, Ferguson also had to take off Jaap Stam, "as a precaution" as one of his hamstrings tightened.

United were matched every inch of the way in the work department, as they tried to banish memories of last year's 3-2 defeat at Highfield Road. However an ineffective first-half performance, which produced only one shot over the crossbar from Giggs, made it seem as if a repeat of that result, if not the scoreline, might be on the cards.

Strachan praised his team afterwards for sticking to the gameplan that cancelled out the threat of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. From that defensive springboard, where Paul Williams and Richard Shaw were outstanding, Coventry were able to propel themselves at Peter Schmeichel's goal.

Their best chances came in five first-half minutes, starting in the 34th when George Boateng advanced from midfield to fire in a fierce, rising shot from 25 yards that produced a flying save from Schmeichel, who Ferguson felt was back to his best. From the ensuing throw-in, Paul Telfer drifted a pass in to Noel Whelan and his first-time effort went only fractions over the crossbar with Schmeichel flat-footed. Four minutes later Boateng fed Gary McAllister, but his shot from 18 yards was too close to Schmeichel, who punched it clear.

As they have done so often this season, United responded in the second half with a patient display that saw the recalled Paul Scholes exert a greater influence in midfield than before the break. Coventry gathered behind the ball but never lost their heads in the face of increasing pressure.

The greatest threat came from the flanks. Eight minutes after the break Denis Irwin on the left slipped the ball to Cole, but the England striker had wandered offside before he put the ball in the net. Now United had momentum and four minutes later Irwin again slipped the ball into Coventry's penalty area, but David Beckham's attempt to sidefoot in was thwarted by a brilliant sliding block by Telfer.

It was Beckham, this time out on the right flank, who delivered the cross that skimmed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's head before landing at Giggs's feet, for the winger to score from six yards, despite Shaw's attempt to clear.

That was Coventry's punishment for sitting too deep in the second half. Two minutes into injury time they threatened an equaliser as Darren Huckerby shot from close range but Schmeichel got a hand on it and Henning Berg cleared.

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