Football: Scholes on a different wavelength

Champions' League: Glenn Hoddle has yet to coax the best out of the little United sorceror
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The Independent Online
DISMANTLING lesser opponents is not normally a skill practised in the upper echelons of European club football. An exhibition of the art was provided by Manchester United in Copenhagen. Glenn Hoddle's more malevolent critics would suggest the first video should be marked for his attention and addressed to the Football Association, Lancaster Gate. "We've got the show on the road", as Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, said. Some show.

Admittedly, Brondby suffered from chronic over- ambition, not an ailment which afflicted Luxembourg and Bulgaria, England's troublesome recent opponents. Quite what brainstorm overtook the likeable and shrewd Ebbe Skovdahl, the Brondby coach, in taking Manchester United on at an attacking game is anyone's guess, but a similar attitude by Lord Cardigan had equally predictable consequences at the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Once Mogens Kroghs - it was not a good night for Danish keepers - had dropped Wes Brown's innocuous right-wing cross invitingly at the feet of Ryan Giggs in the second minute, the mountain top disappeared into the mists of a bleak Copenhagen night. The only sensible policy for the Danes then was to shut up shop and regroup. Instead, they plunged headlong forwards and were cut to ribbons. It was needless and glorious. United's profit was measured not just in a healthy goal difference - important for deciding the two best runners-up in the groups - but in heady comparisons with glory days past.

Ferguson will not be fooled by such flannel. Complacency cost United dear last season and the Scot is determined to avoid a similar fate. "Careless passing" was more the theme of his post-match analysis than carefree brilliance, so you knew he was pleased.

The parallel is uncannily exact. Having beaten Juventus in the Champions' League, United ran into a rich vein of scoring from 25 October which brought them 27 goals in six league games. Yet no sooner had the Christmas tree been consigned to the bonfire than momentum faltered, both in the league and the knockout stages of the European Cup.

In the aftermath of Wednesday night's tennis score, steely intent mingled with an understandable sense of fulfilment. "A lot of players are still recovering from the World Cup," Peter Schmeichel said. "In a few months I think we will be playing even better." The royal "we" that must be. Schmeichel's own form is a cause for concern.

The fluency of the victory over Brondby, albeit played sotto voce by Ferguson, has uncomfortable implications for Hoddle. At the heart of United's excellence lay the diminutive figures of Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, the former a shadow of his United self when transferred to national colours, the latter not even in the starting line-up for the constipated win over Luxembourg. Scholes, alongside the rehabilitated Roy Keane, ran the midfield, dropping deep to receive the ball off the central defenders, breaking forward into the spaces left by Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke and tying up loose ends like a haberdasher.

The fourth goal, the most clinically executed of the six, was the ultimate expression of their work; it was scored by Keane, but no one would have batted an eyelid if Scholes, his shorts hanging off him like drenched washing on a line, had popped up to score too. Any resemblance to the disconsolate figure who had struggled to fill the space behind Alan Shearer and Michael Owen was purely coincidental. Bryan Robson was the first impression that sprang to mind, a natural instinct for goalscoring grafted on to the protestant work ethic and an insatiable will to win. Hoddle has yet to unlock these key characteristics.

As for Gary Neville, even Ferguson might have to revise his opinion. Neville, Ferguson had once suggested, would have to grow a couple of inches to be an ideal centre-half. But in an age which favours pace over height, Neville is beginning to resemble Colin Todd in his scuttling style of running and his speed of thought. Drafted in to the problem central position after an injury to Ronny Johnsen and a brief flirtation with Henning Berg, Neville has looked easily the most accomplished of Jaap Stam's defensive partners. In breaks of play on Wednesday night, it was Neville who circulated the team issuing instructions and exhortations, an illustration of how much he relished his place at the heart of the action. Todd was 5ft 9in; Neville is 5ft 11in.

Schmeichel, ever the diplomat, refused to be drawn on the long-term implications of Neville's conversion from full-back. "We have six centre-halves, so I cannot say," he said. But he told Danish journalists that Neville was improving every game and with Brown, who also adds height to the defence, showing commendable maturity at right full-back, this could be the shape of United's defence for longer than first anticipated.

After a hesitant start, United have now established tenuous control over the most challenging of the six Champions' League groups. Mindful of the criteria for establishing group winners, which is based on matches between the two teams level on points, Bayern's narrow victory over Barcelona completed a perfect night for Ferguson, who had predicted and wanted just a result. With three away goals against United already under their belt, Barcelona are far more favourably placed than Bayern, who conceded two at home to United, if points are level at the end of the six group matches. That is presuming both matches between the sides are drawn. Goal difference, healthily on the side of United now, would only be decisive if all else failed.

As Ferguson privately conceded when the draw was made, the visit to the Nou Camp on 25 November is likely to be the critical encounter in an hermetically sealed group. Visions of the last trip, when his decision to drop Schmeichel disastrously undermined United's confidence, will haunt Ferguson until some measure of revenge has been exacted. Another defeat would surrender the hard won initiative once more. A draw would probably leave United's fate in their own hands for the final group match, at home to Bayern.

The show is on the road and gathering speed. By late on Wednesday night, the Brondby players had the dazed look of pedestrians flattened by a runaway truck.