Football Smith resigned to spring struggle

Manchester United 3 Everton 1
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The Independent Online
EVERTON'S GENEROSITY knows no bounds. Having agreed to put back this fixture 24 hours to give Manchester United recovery time after their European Cup exertions, they collapsed obligingly at Old Trafford yesterday. With opposition like this, who needs friends?

United did not even have to search deeply to maintain their four-point advantage at the top of the Premiership. For most of the afternoon their dynamic approach appeared to have been left in Milan but they stirred themselves for a dozen minutes in the second half to make it their ninth win in 10 League matches.

It was a weary performance from the treble chasers but they had reached the semi- finals of the European Cup by removing Internazionale in midweek and had an alibi. Everton had no excuse and, apart from obdurate resistance before the interval, no redeeming qualities. Two points above the relegation places, it is going to be another anxious spring at Goodison.

"In the first half we defended well," Walter Smith, the Everton manager, said, "but even then we weren't causing United problems. You cannot expect to play like that for 90 minutes, so when the goal came it wasn't a surprise. They deserved the win."

The first half was a barren landscape in terms of entertainment. Everton, with six defenders and a centre-back, Dave Unsworth, as a left-winger, made no secret of their negative intentions, although United were scarcely much better. Deprived of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes through suspension and Ryan Giggs and Jesper Blomqvist through injury, the home side lacked width and as they turned inwards, the game resembled the traffic jams around Old Trafford afterwards.

United threatened to break free from this trap only twice, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a shot and Henning Berg with a header, and it was Everton who provided the most potent pre-interval moment when Marco Materazzi lashed a free-kick that required Peter Schmeichel to stretch low to his right to block.

The match had to improve in the second half, although even that was on a long fuse. Gary Neville provided the first hint that the afternoon was not going to be a complete bore with a spectacular volley after 53 minutes and two minutes later United took the lead.

Again Neville was involved passing to Solskjaer on the edge of the area. So little had gone right for United in the area you could have forgiven Everton for expecting the move to fizzle out, but the Norwegian exchanged a lightning one-two with Dwight Yorke and drilled the ball into the far corner.

With the dam broken the water poured through and United made it 2-0 after 63 minutes. Yorke turned away from Don Hutchison and spread doubt among the Everton rearguard with a twisting run that appeared to be a prelude for a shot from the pounds 12.5m man. Instead he rolled the ball into Gary Neville's path and the full-back scored only his second goal for the club.

United were rampant now and three minutes later they secured the points with a third goal. Ronny Johnsen was brought down by Craig Short and in a central position and 25 yards out the setting was perfect for David Beckham, who swerved the ball round the Everton wall and into the net via Thomas Myhre's outstretched arms. It was his first goal since November.

United's Jonathan Greening hit the post and later pulled a shot wide after Teddy Sheringham had given him the freedom of the area so the damage to Everton could have been far, far worse. But instead of a rout the visitors discovered some respectability.

Jaap Stam fouled Olivier Dacourt and, while Schmeichel was still lining up his wall, Hutchison fired a shot past him, depriving the Dane of the chance to beat Alex Stepney's record of 175 clean sheets for United. In different circumstances he would have gone ballistic; with the current Everton it was a mere inconvenience.

It was the only thing to mar a good afternoon for Alex Ferguson. The United manager had feared that the first three weeks of March would drag his team down but they have remained unbeaten in six games spanning a period of 18 days and have qualified for the semi-finals of the European and FA Cups.

"They have excelled themselves," Ferguson purred afterwards. "Now they can get their break with the international teams. Some will play, some won't but they'll come back in two weeks ready for the challenge." So much for the sides of March.

Goals: Solskjaer (55) 1-0; G Neville (63) 2-0; Beckham (66) 3-0; Hutchison (80) 3-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Stam, P Neville; Beckham (Greening, 70), Butt, Johnsen, Solskjaer (Curtis, 90); Yorke, Cole (Sheringham, 70). Substitutes not used: Brown, Van der Gouw (gk).

Everton (4-4-2): Myhre; Weir, Short, Materazzi, Ball; O'Kane (Jeffers, 60), Grant (Degn, 67), Dacourt, Unsworth; Hutchison, Bakayoko (Cadamarteri, 5). Substitutes not used: Watson, Simonsen (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds). Bookings: Everton: Hutchison, Weir, Dacourt.

Man of the match: Yorke.

Attendance: 55,182.

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