Football: Second best may not be good enough

Manchester United made the most of their Champions' League trip to Slovakia, but they know that sterner tests lie ahead
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The Independent Online
A certainty in the aftermath of Manchester United's win in Kosice was that Alex Ferguson's retort that he was not concerned about the result in Turin could be taken with a mine of salt. The format of the Champions' League means all matches demand attention.

The switch to six groups where only the winners are certain to reach the knock-out phase has ensured that every point, every goal is important. United cannot rely on finishing above Juventus in Group B so they have to go all guns blazing for the best second place.

In that context a 3-0 win away from home - albeit against newcomers to the Champions' League disrupted by the resignation of their coach - was satisfying. In numerical terms, no team achieved better on their travels and only Juventus embellished their goal difference by more. If United had lost, their prospect of moving towards Europe's pinnacle would have diminished; now they can meet Juventus at Old Trafford on 1 October knowing a victory will put them in a healthy position to qualify.

By then Ryan Giggs, Teddy Sheringham and even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could be fit to provide a cutting thrust that has been the one ingredient missing to date. In the League it has been the goals from midfield that have bailed them out, on Wednesday it was the defence.

Forced to play Andy Cole as the sole striker, United's Christmas tree formation placed an emphasis on the full-backs to give them width, something Denis Irwin did to emphatic effect, scoring for the first time since the opening match of last season. Henning Berg then killed the contest.

It was, as Ferguson said, a "good night" but one that was not flawless. Cole, who added the third in the closing minutes, had another fitful performance, more assured with his touch but still profligate. If United are going to win the European Cup a smoother finish will be required.

That could come with Sheringham and Solskjaer, but how United shore up Gary Pallister is another matter. He looked rickety against West Ham on Saturday and floundered on occasions against the quick, in all senses, Jozef Kozlej in Kosice. His near-perpetual back problems might be flaring and United have no one of his stature as a replacement.

Had Pallister's shirt pull on Albert Rusnak with the score at 1-0 been punished with the penalty it deserved, United might have come away from Slovakia with a very different result. "Kosice will learn from this experience," Ferguson said afterwards. Enough to take points off Juventus and Feyenoord in the group matches? The United manager will earnestly hope so.

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