Football: Happiness is a clean sheet for Ferguson

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 3 Nottingham Forest 0

ONE MANAGER spoke earnestly of needing confidence, of maintaining a few clean sheets to put mortar between stone in the defensive positions. A worrying sequence of failure had been created.

Who? Not Dave Bassett - Nottingham Forest's position has gone beyond expressions of concern and now demands outpourings of optimism - but Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager wanted this result like his visiting counterpart requires a near miracle to stop his team dropping back into the First Division.

Which puts need in perspective. Ferguson's sights are on a fifth Premiership title in seven seasons, not to mention the European Cup, and the chaotic defending of recent weeks had put the first ambition in jeopardy and hardly inspired belief in the second. The "nil" in the visiting column was appreciated as much as the "three" in the home.

It was 8 November, before Peter Schmeichel's announcement that he is to leave United, since they last achieved that. "They are not bad defenders," Ferguson said, "they have been careless at times, but they defended sensibly today. If we get a few more clean sheets, confidence will come back."

For 25 minutes it was not only the home defence who looked bereft. Ryan Giggs could not have found a roast spud in his Christmas dinner, David Beckham looked disorientated and Nicky Butt was expending loads of energy to little effect. A full-strength Forest could have taken them, a team weakened by injury and suspension could only hope for a lucky punch.

Any hope of that evaporated after 27 minutes. Beckham crossed and fortunately found Giggs' head rather than his errant feet, and when Dave Beasant tipped the effort round the post the resultant corner arced straight to Ronny Johnsen, who headed emphatically down and in.

The effect was dramatic. A weight was lifted from United and it was a surprise that the second goal took so long to come. The source was eyebrow- raising too, given the way United's centre-backs have been working together recently, but when Henning Berg won a header in the Forest area Johnsen swivelled before volleying immaculately.

At that point, as Bassett put it, "the party was on" and United's third goal was glorious. Teddy Sheringham passed inside to Beckham, whose first- time touch was such a plumped and sumptuous cushion it would have won the admiration of a master upholsterer. Giggs could luxuriate in it, delicately chipping the advancing Beasant.

The contest was over and Forest had to come to terms with equalling their own Premiership-worst run of 16 successive matches without a victory. "Forget how it affects me," Bassett said, "think how it affects the players. Some of them were part of the record last time."

It was difficult not to feel sorry for Bassett, who had to give Chris Doig, a 17-year-old centre-back, his debut because his resources were so stretched. Compare that to United, who could call up Johnsen and Berg for the absent Gary Neville and Jaap Stam.

There were calls for Bassett's removal from the Forest fans during the match, which is harsh considering he came back from holiday last summer to find his board had managed to mislay 55 goals-worth of strikers while he was away. Optimism is the last resource. A defeat by Southampton today and even that might run out.

Goals: Johnsen (27) 1-0; Johnsen (59) 2-0; Giggs (61) 3-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, Berg, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Keane (Greening, 65), Giggs (Blomqvist, 74); Scholes (Solskjaer, 62), Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Brown, Van der Gouw (gk).

Nottingham Forest (4-1-4-1): Beasant; Louis-Jean, Chettle (Doig, 67), Armstrong, Rogers; Bart-Williams (Bonalair, 53); Stone (Hodges, 76), Johnson, Quashie, Freedman; Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Darcheville, Crossley (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees). Bookings: Manchester United: P Neville. Forest: Rogers, Quashie, Chettle.

Man of the match: Johnson.

Attendance: 55,216.