Football: Solskjaer the king of cameos

Manchester United 5 Everton 1
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The Independent Online
AS OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER left the Old Trafford pitch having coldly ripped Everton apart, a steward pointed out he had forgotten something. Not a trifle, but the match ball which scorers of hat-tricks and more normally take home as a momento.

It was a cameo laced with symbolism. Solskjaer had scored four goals but the significance had slipped to the recesses of his mind as surely as it will in the thinking of his manager. The Norwegian knows he can score many, many times and still his place in the Manchester United team will not be guaranteed. Who needs a ball when the achievement matters so little?

Come the crunch, Sir Alex Ferguson has consistently chosen Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke ahead of Solskjaer and, as he rested his principal strikers for this match, there is little to suggest anything will be different against Valencia in the Champions' League on Wednesday, even if the United manager suggested otherwise.

"To be honest I have no idea who will play against Valencia," Sir Alex said. "I'll keep my options open but the freshness that Cole and Yorke can give me is still there." Then throwing a crumb to Solskjaer, he added: "Ole is bang in the picture for Wednesday. He will always take more than is fair share of his chances and he's always on target, too."

Take that to mean a restoration of the Yorke-Cole axis, even if Solskjaer was as clinical as a stethoscope in this match. Five chances, four goals - but he did the same against Nottingham Forest last season and could not keep his place. Then, though, his slim consolation was being excluded by the most prolific striker in the country; this time even the Norwegian's extraordinary patience will surely be tested if Yorke is preferred. The Tobagan may have struck nine times this season but it is nine matches since he last did so and his powers to create have dwindled, too. It was probably why his manager rested him.

With David Beckham joining Cole and Yorke as substitutes, rest was a dominant theme as Ferguson brought in his stand-ins for a game sandwiched between Inter-Continental and European ambitions. But United's rest are something apart.

"When I saw the bench," Richard Gough, Everton's veteran defender said, "I told everyone: 'We had better not kick anyone. We don't want any of those coming on'." That was Plan A, which appeared to be working when Francis Jeffers put Everton ahead, and possibly would have been successful all afternoon if Jeffers' header after 21 minutes had gone in instead of hitting the post.

With Mark Bosnich already in the dressing room with a hamstring injury that will keep him out for three weeks and the possibility of jet-lag landing on a team who had been to Tokyo and back, everything about Saturday's game said "upset" - until Everton began a collection of cock-ups.

First, Richard Dunne stuck out an arm to concede a penalty, then David Weir was twice left trailing by Solskjaer's speed. By the hour mark it was 5-1 to the home team and Everton's supporters were leaving. In view of the comic defending that had led to the fifth goal - Dunne passed first to Giggs and then to Solskjaer - it was probably to spare their senses.

"The level of defending was as poor as it has been since I've been at Everton," Walter Smith grumbled. "Manchester United did not need to work hard to get their goals." When had he last suffered a defeat of such magnitude? "The Boys' Brigade," he replied.

Solskjaer's reward for his four goals was to be banished to the left- wing to allow Cole a gentle run-out, a decision that allowed Everton to slip out of Old Trafford with their dignity just about intact. Meanwhile they can only wonder at the resources available to rivals they used to look at in the rear-view mirror.

"As a defender you think, 'Yorke and Cole, that's a real cutting edge,' " Gough said. "Solskjaer does it in a different way but it's just as effective. Both him and Teddy Sheringham would be first choice in most Premiership sides." Exactly.

Goals: Jeffers (6) 0-1; Irwin (pen 26) 1-1; Solskjaer (28) 2-1; Solskjaer (42) 3-1; Solskjaer (51) 4-1; Solskjaer (57) 5-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich (Van der Gouw, 7); G Neville, Stam, Silvestre (P Neville, 63), Irwin; Scholes, Keane, Butt, Giggs (Cole, 63); Sheringham, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Beckham, Yorke.

Everton (4-4-2): Gerrard; Dunne (Ball, 62), Weir, Gough, Unsworth; Abel Xavier, Collins, Pembridge (Grant, 80), Barmby (Cleland, 62); Campbell, Jeffers. Substitutes not used: Jevons, Simonsen (gk).

Bookings: United: Butt. Everton: Weir.

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Man of the match: Solskjaer.

Attendance: 55,193.