Three points against the team second from bottom of the Premiership was no more than was anticipated. The manner of their achievement was considerably below expectations. In fact, Southampton were doubly unlucky to leave Old Trafford without at least a point to aid their annual struggle against relegation. Having held out for most of the match, they almost staged a remarkable comeback after going two goals down.
Alex Ferguson, the United manager, was relieved to get through the game without injuries. Jaap Stam will also have recovered from his hamstring injury to give Ferguson his widest possible team selection options for the visit of Inter as he pursues the one trophy that still eludes him.
The game was into its final 10 minutes before United finally broke down an impressive Saints defence. The goal came from one of the few four-man moves United had been able to string together against a well-organised team who swamped the midfield to deny the home side the space they needed to set up a reliable supply line to their strikers. Then David Beckham found Henning Berg on the right and his header fell to Dwight Yorke. In what was almost his first influential touch of the game, the striker laid it back into the path of Roy Keane, who had come on as a half-time substitute for Nicky Butt, and he drove it through a crowded defence and beyond the grasp of Southampton's impressive goalkeeper, Paul Jones.
It was a bitter blow for a Southampton side who had resisted stoutly and always looked capable of snatching something on the break as United pressed forward with increasing desperation. Their bad luck was compounded minutes later with a second United goal that looked suspiciously offside. Beckham picked out Yorke with a precise angled pass and the unmarked striker, who had advanced beyond the Saints back four, merely had to sidestep Jones to put the match seemingly beyond reach.
Even then, however, United almost contrived to throw it all away. A shot from Matthew Le Tissier, coming on as a late substitute, was spilled by Peter Schmeichel into the path of the Southampton striker James Beattie, who hit the bar. But the Saints did get the goal they had been threatening all afternoon in injury-time when Le Tissier met Jason Dodd's free-kick with an unchallenged header.
"It was a chaotic performance" Ferguson said. "There was no pace to our game. It often happens before big matches, though with the way we have been playing recently I thought we would keep the momentum going. Keane makes a difference to any team and he injected a bit of pace into our play when he came on."
David Jones, the Southampton manager, was equally disappointed: "We took the game to United and with a bit more luck and quality in front of goal we might have gone in front."
His remarks will have been felt most keenly by the unfortunate Beattie, who was celebrating his 21st birthday but failed to accept any of a number of gifts that came his way. He should have put Southampton ahead early on but could get no direction on his header from Egil Ostenstad's perfectly- flighted cross.
Ryan Giggs was the most dangerous of a lacklustre United attack. His cross almost forced Ken Monkou to head into his own goal and, from the resulting corner, Yorke's header was cleared off the line by Patrick Colleter, but only as far as Butt who volleyed over the crossbar.
It was not until half-time approached that United managed to raise their tempo and when Beckham broke free and chipped the ball to the far post, Giggs' header was cleared off the line by David Hughes.
Southampton continued to give as good as they got, however, and Schmeichel had to race out of his penalty area to win the chase for a throughball with Beattie and head it away to safety. Then he almost threw his good work away with a poor clearance straight to Beattie who was so surprised that he could only hook a lazy shot wide of the post.
Ostenstad, too, gave the home supporters a nervous moment when he darted into the box and cut in on goal but the ball refused to sit up for a clean shot and Phil Neville got a foot in to turn it away for a corner. But then came the goal to save United's blushes.
"Top of the League with only 10 weeks left is a nice place to be but we have a tough month coming up," Ferguson said. But on this performance with two games against Inter and an FA Cup tie against Chelsea in the offing, United will need to beware the ides of March.Reuse content