Football: Scholes is the sole provider for United

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 1

Scholes 4

Manchester City 0

Attendance: 35,707

THE expected outcome, but from unexpected performances. Manchester United duly condemned their neighbours to an eighth consecutive Premiership defeat, their fifth in a row in Mancunian derbies, but less emphatically than anticipated. Indeed City, showing a stronger stomach for a contest than several times hitherto this season, might even have poached a point.

Only in the later stages, as City tired - with Andy Cole at his most profligate - was the gap between second in the table and bottom easily apparent. Earlier Cole had been matched by Niall Quinn, who twice had excellent chances to equalise. Had City coaxed a goal from either, it would have been appropriate reward for their Georgian midfield player Georgi Kinkladze, whose poise and passing were the most pleasing features in what was a messy game.

The statistics pile up in this tale of one City, for whom it is the worst of times. They have not won at Old Trafford since 1974, when Denis Law's apologetic back-heel helped to relegate his former club, and they have won only once in the last 27 encounters. That derby, which owed something to snooker scoring (the Blues were worth five and the Reds one) was five years and 10 meetings ago now.

Of more immediate concern will be their casting adrift in the Premiership; soon they may need snookers. Like John Major, they are well behind in the polls and might take to heart the Prime Minister's words about having the fight of his life on his hands. At least they showed some yesterday. "At least we weren't overrun and outplayed," their beleaguered manager Alan Ball said. "We were always in there with a little bit of a chance, but we didn't have enough ammunition."

An Old Trafford filled with United fans - due to ongoing building work, no tickets went to City's, who were offered the chance of watching on a large screen at Maine Road - settled down for a ritual slaughter, like spectators at the Coliseum. Even the absence of Eric Cantona with his knee injury was surely not going to matter.

"City are about to make their first mistake," said someone as they prepared to kick off. As Ball said on Friday, in a rare display of his club getting something right this season, the comedians were probably getting ready.

Duly, what seemed to be first blood took only four minutes. Nicky Butt played a perceptive pass from midfield wide to David Beckham on the right, and his intended cross deflected for a corner. From Ryan Giggs' inswinging kick, Paul Scholes was left unmarked, and the 5ft 6in striker did not even have to jump to head the ball goalwards, it cannoning into the net off Keith Curle.

But thereafter, City actually played some decent passing football and defused United's explosive start. Kinkladze, who had scored the decisive goal for Georgia in their win over Bulgaria in midweek, was the hub, retaining possession neatly, his left foot probing the home defence cleverly. His bravery shone through, too, as he persisted, despite some tough tackling.

From his free-kick Uwe Rosler glanced a header wide, and Peter Schmeichel was forced into two saves, from Garry Flitcroft's low shot and Niall Quinn's looping header. Then came a remarkable City miss. Rosler played the ball forward and, profiting from Gary Pallister's slip, Quinn found himself with only the keeper to beat. His side-foot, though, was placed wide. As Rosler went over to console him, one warmed to City, however.

"The younger players didn't know whether to penetrate or keep possession," the United manager Alex Ferguson said, explaining his team's "lackadaisical" performance. It is something Cantona might bring.

At the beginning of the second half, Quinn had another splendid chance, Kinkladze and Garry Flitcroft combining to set him free. His shot, though, was weak, and straight at Schmeichel.

One expected the real United to stand up, and eventually they did, but the real City did not lie down. Cole shot and headed every chance wide, once after a neat one-two with Butt, except for one which Eike Immel saved well, as he did Giggs' shot with the outside of his boot.

"Simply a mess," say the gloating T-shirts on sale outside the stadium, but for long periods it was not their intended targets who were. But, as Ball conceded, a City playing better than usually still did not have enough all round to take something from a United below simply their best.