Football: Johnsen restores winning ways

Manchester United 3 Johnsen 28 59, Giggs 62 Nottingham Forest 0 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 55,216
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The Independent Online
ALEX FERGUSON could have been forgiven for feeling his side have taken the season of goodwill to extremes. For, the occasional flash of excellence aside, Manchester United rarely shifted out of second gear.

Nottingham Forest, in equalling their unwelcome record of 16 Premiership games without victory, played their part. Using Neil Shipperley as a lone striker, they showed early spirit not matched by their ambition and, as that initial enthusiasm dissolved, the symptoms of terminal illness became all too apparent.

Ferguson will be looking for the sort of thrust displayed only at the beginning of the second half, during which his side powered away from Forest, when Chelsea, who disposed of Forest's fellow relegation strugglers Southampton at the Dell earlier in the day to move back to the top of the table, provide a more stern test of United's current form and confidence at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

There was never any real doubt that Ferguson's own record, his worst league run in six years, would be halted, but the first-half display in particular did little to convince that United's title challenge is yet at full throttle.

"It was a comfortable victory. We needed a goal to get the confidence after one or two bad results. They came here to make it very difficult for us but there were no serious problems in the match. The third goal was absolutely superb; I don't think you will get a better piece of football anywhere in the country. It is looking very tight at the top and consistency is a key factor now," Ferguson observed.

The Forest manager Dave Bassett's problem is that his side are too consistent and, with injuries conspiring to limit his options further, the visitors' plan was to frustrate their opposition.

"It was a difficult day for us. I thought it might just have been a day to catch United. I thought we played very well in the first half without having the cutting edge to create good chances. The goal settled them down and it was always going to be a difficult second half. After the second goal it was a damage limitation exercise. It is not impossible to survive but it is going to be very difficult," Bassett confessed.

The Forest tactics, and the wholesale reorganisation forced upon United by their own injury problems, made for a scrappy opening. Paul Scholes - playing alongside Teddy Sheringham in attack with the first-choice pair of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke sidelined with groin and thigh injuries respectively - was the hosts' liveliest player, but the breakthrough was provided by another enforced selection change.

With Jaap Stam and Gary Neville out through injury and suspension respectively, Ronnie Johnsen partnered Henning Berg in the centre of defence. After Dave Beasant scrambled a Ryan Giggs header away for a corner, there was no similar reprieve from the set-piece as David Beckham's accurate delivery found Johnsen with time and space to direct his header out of Beasant's reach.

United adopted a more direct approach in the second half, sufficient to pin Forest on the back foot. The spell of increasing pressure started to pay dividends as more and more cracks appeared. Sheringham wasted a gilt-edged chance to stretch the lead when he was found unguarded in the Forest penalty area by Giggs. A poor first touch allowed the defence to regroup and the opportunity to disappear.

Johnsen, however, was in less hesitant mood throughout the blustery afternoon. From a free-kick lofted towards Berg at the far post, the Norwegian powered on to the knock-back from his fellow countryman to smash home from close range.

Forest, now playing for pride, were not allowed that privilege as United cemented their superiority with a brilliant third. Beckham, sacrificing the chance for personal glory, caressed a through-ball on towards Giggs. The winger's lob over the approaching Beasant was equally sumptuous.

The three-goal cushion allowed Ferguson to chop and change his line-up, and the closing stages of the game became something of an anti- climax.

Even so, the United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel carried on his spate of recent eccentricities in almost presenting Shipperley with a consolation. Opting not to clear to safety, Schmeichel was robbed by the striker in the corner, the ensuing curled shot drifting only marginally wide.

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