Football / Premier League: United's balance sheet in credit

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The Independent Online
Everton. . . . . . . .0

Manchester United. . .2

VIGILANT was the word Alex Ferguson chose to describe a United defence that has not conceded a goal in five successive victories. In what might be natural Govan caution, he chose to underplay the achievement when the evidence suggests that, partly through adversity and circumstance, he now has the best balanced side in his six years at Old Trafford.

For one reason or another he is without Robson, Parker, Sharpe, Phelan, Webb and Dublin, the nucleus of another Premier League side. United began the season with two defeats and a draw and then, as Peter Schmeichel reported, the team's system and tactics, depending upon the players available, were reviewed and revised in practice matches at The Cliff.

There are two major differences from the team that faded so badly last spring. The spearhead is now Ryan Giggs, of the elastic control at electrifying pace. Mark Hughes no longer has to play the battering ram and, playing a little behind Giggs, he has the time and space to show his skill, as exemplified by the pass that brought the first goal. The unobtrusive Darren Ferguson has the unglamorous job of filling in the holes in midfield.

The new system works so well, with Brian McClair and Paul Ince forming a central midfield pairing of enormous potential, that Everton never looked like getting on terms, apart from a 10-minute spell early in the second half. Everton always looked stretched, defending or attacking; United moved up a gear only when necessary.

Howard Kendall said afterwards: 'A number of our players fell below the standard required to beat a top side. And they are a top side.'

Just when Everton will be a top side again depends upon how quickly Kendall can find the three or four high-quality players he requires and if he receives the financial backing of the board. He needs about pounds 10m at current prices.

It was not all gloom at the Gwladys Street End. Andy Hinchcliffe is now a much better defender than he was at Manchester City. Barry Horne has given the midfield bite (too much, some referees will say) and there is pace and penetration on the wings. The attack depends too much on Peter Beardsley, whose form throughout his career has been mercurial.

Ferguson, meanwhile, can contemplate European competition on Wednesday with a team in far better shape than the one that defended the Cup-Winners' Cup last season. His injury report consisted of nothing more than bumps and bruises, but he may have to feed his team selection into a computer.

Uefa regulations will allow him to play three of his 'foreigners', Schmeichel, McClair, Hughes and Kanchelskis, and two of his 'assimilated' players, Giggs, Irwin, Blackmore and Ferguson. Danny Wallace and Lee Martin spent much of Saturday afternoon pumping up and down the touchline, which may be significant.

Goals: McClair (28) 0-1; Bruce pen (75) 0-2.

Everton: Southall; Harper, Hinchcliffe, Ebbrell (Beagrie, 70), Watson, Ablett, Warzycha, Beardsley, Johnston, Horne, Ward. Substitutes not used: Jackson, Kearton (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Irwin, Blackmore, Bruce, Ferguson, Pallister, Kanchelskis, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Martin, Wallace, Walsh (gk).

Referee: M Peck (Kendal).