Football: Ice-cool Alex fells Ferguson

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Wed 3 Manchester United 1

Alexandersson 14, 73 Cole 29

Jonk 55

Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 39,475

NICLAS ALEXANDERSSON took full toll of Manchester United's defensive frailties to ensure that the day they could have prepared for Barcelona by going top of the Premiership ended miserably.

The Swede tripled his tally for Sheffield Wednesday by scoring two of their goals and playing an important part in the other. But both he and his side were fortunate to find United, and Peter Schmeichel in particular, in such generous mood.

If Schmeichel had not already told United that they will need a new goalkeeper, they might have come to that conclusion unaided. He will certainly have conceded few worse goals in his long, distinguished career than the one with which Alexandersson opened the scoring after 14 minutes. His shot from well outside the area was accurate enough, but it came at a height and pace that made it about as difficult as taking a pullover from the top shelf of a wardrobe. Schmeichel contrived to help it into the net and, for once, there was no one to shout at but himself.

Wednesday, only beaten once by United at Hillsborough in their last eight visits, were the more lively side from the start, especially when the active half of their Italian axis, Benito Carbone, was involved. Pavel Srnicek, making his home debut in goal, was able to absorb his new surroundings without being asked too much by an attack that only sparked fitfully.

That made the craftsmanship of United's equaliser all the more startling. Andy Cole's lay-back to Dwight Yorke was precise and the return ball, chipped into his stride, was perfection. The partnership had been shackled up to that point, but Cole tucked the chance away to underline the damage they could do if unleashed.

But Wednesday survived a little flurry from United before half-time, with Srnicek doing well to push away a low shot after a surging run through the middle by Jaap Stam.

United had a penalty appeal turned down when Denis Irwin appeared to be brought down by a genuine forward's tackle from Alexandersson. When they did get the ball in the net, it was at the expense of a booking for Paul Scholes, who clearly put it there with his hand.

Nine minutes after the break, Wednesday's second goal made their escape complete and again Schmeichel was implicated. He seemed to have done well to get down and block Andy Booth's close-range shot from Alexandersson's cross, but when you are having a day like his, the rebound will inevitably come off your chest to a lurking predator, in this case Wim Jonk, who tucked it in from the angle.

Alex Ferguson declined to single out his fallible keeper for criticism. "There were mistakes all over the pitch today," he said. "You can't put it down to one individual. Only Stam performed to the standards of Manchester United today."

Despite that exemption, the world's dearest defender was involved in Wednesday's third, clinching goal. Carbone's overhead kick put the defence under pressure and Stam's unconvincing attempt to clear only hit the Italian. Wednesday anticipated the run of the ball again, Alexandersson coming in from the right for his second.

The Wednesday manager, Danny Wilson, agreed he was something of an unlikely hero. "He's a very shy lad, quiet and unassuming, but terrific to work with," he said. "He had a bit of help with that slip for the first goal, but he showed very good anticipation for the second."

Setting this result alongside their last Premiership victory, over Arsenal at the end of September, suggests Wednesday are saving their best for the best. "We got the rub of the green today that we've not had for the last month, but we've earned that luck because we've played with a very positive attitude," said Wilson.

Ferguson also felt that his side were showing a tendency towards selectivity and he did not mean that as any sort of compliment. "You wonder whether you're turning into a big match team," he said. "They let themselves down today, but you know that, come Wednesday, they will probably excel."

There was nothing here to worry Aston Villa, let alone Barcelona, in the slightest. It will come as little consolation to Ferguson to know thatWilson believed United should have had a penalty, but Alexandersson was having one of those days when even your errors turn out quite nicely thank you.