Sturm means storm in German but last night the Austrians were more a gentle zephyr barely ruffling the European champions' composure. Their captain, Ivica Vastic, missed a second-half penalty but the match had been won and lost by then anyway by virtue of goals from Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. United, had they really needed to, could have inflicted far more damage.
Indeed, the only blot on the night for United was a booking for David Beckham, who antagonised the crowd by kicking out at Tomislav Kocijan and then received a yellow card after another altercation with Roman Mahlich. One day he will grow up.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not see the first incident but felt the caution was unjustified. "The referee knew he had to book the Sturm Graz player and balanced it up by booking Beckham, too," he said. Frankly the United manager should be grateful he did not lose the player with a sending off.
Sir Alex had set a target of 11 points to ensure qualification to the next phase and, after squandering two in their first match against the massed ranks of Croatia Zagreb eight nights previously, a defeat could not have been contemplated in the humid Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion. Contemplated? Given the poverty of the opposition it was not conceivable.
Graz had begun their Champions' League campaign by getting beaten 2-0 in Marseilles and that, Sir Alex estimated, would encourage the home team to attack. The last thing he wanted, he said, was another night of banging against defensive walls. "They need a win," the United manager had said. "It's their big chance." It was one they would fluff fairly spectacularly.
United were without seven players through injury or ineligibility but, frankly, their Worthington Cup team could have dealt with the Austrians. And this was an outfit driven forward by the returning Keane, who gave his side the lead, but was forced off in the second half after he aggravated the knee injury that has kept him out for last three weeks. He is now doubtful for Saturday's match against Southampton.
His inclusion, however, was a formality once he successfully completed Tuesday night's training session but Sir Alex did have to make one decision last night, preferring Raimond van der Gouw to Mark Bosnich. Not that United needed a command performance from their goalkeeper in a match that confirmed the suspicion that Graz are the makeweights in Group D. The Austrians' football was pleasant enough and their playmaker Vastic promised much, but their threat was negligible and their defending not much more substantial.
United soon perceived the quality of the opposition and stirred themselves to do enough and little more. There was a lackadaisical air about their work with little of the power, drive and tempo of the best moments of last year's campaign, but then they did not need to dig deep to beat a side who showed only too well why they conceded 11 goals against Real Madrid in the Champions' League last year, particularly when Franco Foda kept conceding free-kicks in Beckham range.
The first, after three minutes, arched delightfully round the defensive wall and curled just wide, but if the Austrians were fortunate then they would pay 13 minutes later. Beckham's second attempt had none of the grace of his first, but it thumped into the wall and the the ricochet fell to Keane, whose powerful right-foot volley crashed past the startled Kazimierz Sidorczuk off the bar.
Once ahead, United could attack on the counter and as the Austrians stretched to get an equaliser they were pierced by two goals in three minutes. The first came after 30 minutes when Graz's marking was so poor Yorke was able to saunter to the near post to head in Beckham's right- wing corner. The Graz goalkeeper's dive was almost as inept as his defenders' attention and the ball crept under his attempt to save.
Yorke turned creator soon afterwards with a sparkling piece of skill. He span off his marker on the halfway line and then flicked a pass to his right which Cole chested down and then imperiously beat Sidorczuk with a shot into the corner.
Three up at half-time, United could only fall foul of their own complacency and they gave that full rein with a sloppy start after the interval. Within four minutes of the restart the visiting defence disappeared as Gilbert Prilasnig's pass set Vastic free in the area. The Austrian striker's shot was poor, however, going wide of Van der Gouw's left-hand post.
If that striking was lamentable, it got worse for Vastic after 53 minutes. Phil Neville brought down Kocijan in the area and although Vastic looked the epitome of aplomb as he trotted to take the penalty and dummied as he was about to shoot, his kick trickled straight to the United goalkeeper. That acted as a wake-up call and United finished the match comfortably superior. They will wish all their Champions' League matches were as comfortable as this.
Sturm Graz (3-5-2): Sidorczuk; Feldhofer (Korsos,70), Foda, Neukirchner; Martens, Mahlich (Reinmayr, 74), Vastic, Schupp, Prilasnig (Kutsupias, 70); Kocijan, Strafner. Substitutes not used: Schicklgruber (gk), Bochtler, Szabics, Pantelic.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; Irwin, Berg, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Keane (Wilson, 60), Scholes, Cruyff (Sheringham, 66); Yorke, Cole (Solskjaer, 75). Substitutes not used: Bosnich (gk), Clegg, Fortune, Greening.
Referee: A Trentalange (It).
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