Football: The defence case fails for United

Manchester United 3 Southampton 3
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a game which must have had Fabrizio Ravanelli and his fellow Marseilles strikers rubbing their hands in eager anticipation of this Wednesday's Champions' League tie at Old Trafford. I am not so sure, though, that the French club's defence will be looking forward to it.

The defensive howlers apart, this was an awesome attacking display by United and one could excuse Sir Alex Ferguson, who was, as always, fiercely protective of the culprits, for looking on the bright side: United should indeed have scored "five or six, maybe 10 goals".

Since two of the guilty men, Massimo Taibi and Mikael Silvestre, are ineligible to face the French, the quality of United's defensive play was largely irrelevant in terms of Champions' League form. Horribly exposed though Jaap Stam was by the nimble skills of little Marian Pahars for the opening goal, I rather fancy that the big Dutchman will relish his confrontation with the less mobile Ravanelli. Although having said that, he does seem to be disturbed by players who run at him, as the substitute James Beattie did in injury time.

No, I would imagine that the report which the Marseilles spies take back to the South of France, once they have had a good guffaw over the defensive gaffes, will be more concerned with how to stop David Beckham. Once again he was placed under the magnifying glass last week because of his questionable ill-discipline in Austria, but after enduring the brickbats of France 98 his skin by now must be as thick as cowhide.

He can do no wrong in the eyes of the Old Trafford faithful and he positively radiated in response to their support on Saturday. In the first half his delivery from the wing was exquisite and prolific enough to have won two or three games. The French, though, will have noted how his threat receded a little once Francis Benali played him much tighter.

They will have noted, too, the predatory form of Dwight Yorke, who twice put United ahead to overtake the suspended Andy Cole as the club's leading scorer. But as fast as he could score United threw it away. The first time they did so, Taibi allowed the softest of shots from Matt Le Tissier to slip through his fingers and legs as if it were made of butter. Visitors apart, possibly only Mark Bosnich could see the funny side.

Then United old boy Mark Hughes almost celebrated what could have been his farewell appearance at Old Trafford with a classic 25-yard half-volley which twanged the bar. Instead the parting gift came from the Frenchman, Silvestre, when he needlessly lost possession to Pahars just outside the box. Given that the move was completed by a man called Le Tissier, the Marseilles scouts would no doubt have taken it as a good omen.

Goals: Pahars (17) 0-1; Sheringham (34) 1-1; Yorke (37) 2-1; Le Tissier (51) 2-2; Yorke (62) 3-2; Le Tissier (71) 3-3.

Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Taibi; Silvestre, Stam, Berg, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Butt; Solskjaer; Yorke, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Wilson, Cruyff, P Neville, Fortune, Bosnich (gk).

Southampton (4-5-1): Jones; Dodd, Lundekvam (Marsden, 67), Richards, Benali; Ripley, Oakley, Soltvedt (Le Tissier, h-t), Hughes, Kachloul; Pahars (Beattie, 90). Substitutes not used: Colleter, Moss (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Bookings: Manchester United: Scholes, Berg.

Man of the match: Pahars.

Attendance: 55,249.

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