Football: Schmeichel leads by superior example

Manchester United 2 Crystal Palace 0
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Manchester United 2 Crystal Palace 0

When they need a new captain, most managers look for a player with a strong sense of responsibility, a cool head, a good disciplinary record and a natural inclination to reach for the water hose rather than the petrol can when trouble flares. Alex Ferguson chooses Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and now Peter Schmeichel.

On the face of it, the Manchester United manager's choices have been bizarre to the point of perversity. It is almost as if he has been singling out the most hot-headed and unpredictable players in his squad.

Yet as a man who has been known to see the odd patch of red mist himself, Ferguson clearly values players with fire in their bellies and passion in their hearts. Maybe he sees the captaincy as a steadying cloak of responsibility to put over the shoulders of his most volatile players - or perhaps he hopes their passionate example will be followed by the rest of the team.

There had hardly been time to assess Keane's leadership qualities when he suffered the cruciate ligament injury which will keep him out for the rest of the season. The armband has now passed to Schmeichel, whose main problem will be how to communicate with his outfield players while rooted between the goalposts. Yet if any goalkeeper can do it then Schmeichel can, as a generation of ear-bashed United defenders will testify.

What nobody would doubt is Schmeichel's ability to set a suitable playing standard for colleagues to follow. He has conceded only four goals in nine Premiership matches this season and at Old Trafford on Saturday he was a mighty rock in Crystal Palace's path during the visitors' spirited second-half recovery.

The first 45 minutes had been almost embarrassingly easy for United, who made the match feel like a training session. The only surprise was that they did not add to Teddy Sheringham's close-range volley and Hermann Hreidarsson's clumsy own goal after David Beckham's cross.

Palace made a game of it in the second half - although Steve Coppell, the Palace manager, and Ferguson both agreed that United could have stepped up a gear again if they had needed to - but their efforts were continually thwarted by Schmeichel. Attilio Lombardo (twice) and George Ndah both appeared to be intimidated by Schmeichel's towering presence when they broke clear to face one-on-ones with the great Dane, who also made excellent saves from free kicks by Dean Gordon and Itzak Zohar.

"Schmeichel was too big to beat," Lombardo said of his two opportunities. "In the first instance I tried to dummy him and he did well, and in the second he made a good save."

Coppell was similarly impressed. "Peter walked past me at the end of the game and he cast a shadow over me - he's so big," Coppell said. "It's hard to pick a spot when you have someone of his size bearing down on you."

Playing with only Paul Warhurst up front, Palace had come with the intention of playing a containing game. The plan might have worked had they not looked so relieved almost every time a United attack broke down that they promptly gave away possession. Sheringham was given a free shot for the first goal (which came from a corner that had been unnecessarily conceded) and the second followed an appalling pass out of defence by Andy Roberts.

Such sloppiness will inevitably be punished by a team of United's quality, although this match again made you wonder what havoc an Alan Shearer or Robbie Fowler would create playing in their attack. The approach play of Ryan Giggs, Beckham and Paul Scholes was a delight to watch, but the finishing was poor.

Goals: Sheringham (17) 1-0; Hreidarsson og (30) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, P Neville (Irwin, 84); Beckham, Johnsen (Poborsky, 70), Scholes, Butt; Sheringham, Giggs. Substitutes not used: May, McClair, Van der Gouw (gk).

Crystal Palace (5-4-1): Miller; Edworthy, Linighan (Freedman, 70), Roberts, Hreidarsson, Gordon; Lombardo (Zohar, 84), Fullarton, Rodger, Ndah; Warhurst. Substitutes not used: Shipperley, Muscat, Ormshaw (gk)

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Man of the match: Schmeichel.

Attendance: 55,143.