Football: Sheringham in with a shout

Manchester United 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0
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The Independent Online
WHEN ALEX FERGUSON took the microphone to whip up the crowd seconds before the kick-off, the sense of foreboding was complete. The Manchester United manager feared a dip after wonder-goal Wednesday and you could imagine Arsenal and Chelsea rubbing their hands too. He could have saved his voice, they their anticipation.

In theory the other Wednesday, Sheffield, ought to have provided prickly opposition for a team fighting on three fronts, but they were so supine United would gladly meet them every time they are caught between big matches. Pathetic is not too strong a word for the visitors.

"United won at an absolute canter," a disgusted Danny Wilson said. "It's possibly the biggest crowd they'll ever get for a five-a-side game because that was the tempo we played. A few home truths have been told and feathers have been ruffled."

Which indicates that the Wednesday manager's tongue is more abrasive and energetic than his players because they left United serenely unconcerned. Ferguson rested seven players and withdrew Jaap Stam and Roy Keane after the hour, and yet they would have improved on last year's 6-1 rout had it not been for half a dozen saves from Pavel Srnicek.

So poor were the visitors, the Juventus spy would still be giggling at the suggestion that the Premiership is the most competitive league in the world if he was not so livid that Wednesday had taken so little out of this week's European Cup semi-final opponents. The Italians must have been drained more by their 3-1 defeat of Lazio in Rome.

After a promising first quarter when Benito Carbone brought an athletic save out of Raimond van der Gouw, Wednesday's tactic was to defend so deeply United would have needed to be comatose rather than weary not to accept the invitation to attack. The ploy was questionable at 0-0 but ludicrous once Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had scored his 17th goal of the season. The least Juve, Arsenal and Chelsea would have expected was for Wednesday to chase the game but this minimum was beyond them.

So flaccid was the response, Wilson was asked if Wednesday, mindful of a possible Fair Play place in the Uefa Cup, had given up tackling. "It's not even been mentioned at the club," he replied. "I'd rather get another 10 bookings and win a football game."

He was embarrassed; Ferguson was purring. United had moved closer to the title at the cost of less effort than a training ground kick-about. The injured Ryan Giggs apart, his sole dilemma for the Juventus game is who to play in attack.

Teddy Sheringham used to be the forgotten man of Old Trafford but since he frightened the lead out of the Italians a fortnight ago he has been irrepressible, and on Saturday he was the reincarnated thinking man's striker.

His touches set up Solskjaer's and Scholes' goals and his strike was so good it ought to make it into the FA heading instruction video. The one thing the visitors had been adept at was aerial clearance but his dart to the near post lost his marker and, with a delicate glance, he diverted Solskjaer's cross into the far corner.

A week ago you could have bet your house on Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole starting against Juventus but Sheringham has clouded the picture if only because he does not surrender possession lightly. Against opponents who sometimes do not give the ball back for five minutes, that ability is priceless.

"I've got to analyse in my own mind what Juventus will do," Ferguson said enigmatically, "and that will have a bearing on how I pick my team."

Given that the Italians did not relish Sheringham's power in the first leg, he will be tempted to use him from the start with the comforting thought that Cole's speed will be more destructive if it is introduced after an hour.

Wilson, for one, believes United can successfully overcome the disadvantage of the 1-1 home draw. "They have a great chance of going through," he said. "You can't write a team off with the talent they've got. I hope Juventus do count their chickens, that they they think it's a foregone conclusion, because they might have a surprise."

After woeful Wednesday, a different kind of Wednesday all together.

Goals: Solskjaer (35) 1-0; Sheringham (44) 2-0; Scholes (60) 3-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; G Neville, Brown, Stam (May, 62), P Neville; Scholes, Keane (Greening, 62), Butt, Blomqvist (Irwin, 74); Sheringham, Scholes. Substitutes not used: Beckham, Yorke.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Srnicek; Atherton, Thome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Alexandersson (Scott, 55), Sonner, Jonk, Rudi; Booth (Cresswell, 70), Carbone. Substitutes not used: Briscoe, Stefanovic, Pressman (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe). Bookings: None.

Man of the match: Sheringham.

Attendance: 55,270.