Football: Three touches of Cole class

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 3

Cole 3, Keane 72, Poborsky 90

Coventry City 0

Attendance: 55,074

King Eric returns to England this week. And, judging by the humble home performance at Old Trafford yesterday, they could still do with his regal presence at his old court. While Cantona prepared to head to Northumberland and Alnwick Castle, to play the Duc de Foix on the set of Elizabeth I, the team he left with the Premiership crown were far from convincing in their own role. Despite the second-minute prompting of an Andy Cole goal, the fluffing of lines was the general theme of the Manchester United show in the Theatre of Dreams.

It could have been a nightmare for the ruling English champions. As Gordon Strachan was quick to lament, before boarding the Coventry team bus, the scoreline did not tell the true story. "I was proud of my players," the Old Trafford old boy said. "We should have taken something from the game." Indeed, it was a wonder as much as a triumph that Coventry did not even get the consolation of the goal that would have spoiled United's clean- sheet record.

Not that Alex Ferguson was unduly concerned. "A deserved 3-0 win," was the Manchester United manager's opening post-match line, tongue virtually piercing (never mind in) his cheek. "Yes, the scoreline was flattering," he added. "It wasn't fair on Coventry, but what can I say? We won 3-0."

At least United maintained their winning momentum, though not quite in the fashion Howard Kendall envisaged when he suggested on Wednesday night that the race for this season's Premiership title would be a one-horse race. The champions certainly had a thoroughbred look about them on the Goodison side of the Melling Road but that did not stop Ferguson from taking measures to keep a suitable spring in their step. His squad rotation left Denis Irwin on the bench, alongside the 18-year-old John Curtis, with Cole and Phillip Neville promoted to the starting line up and no place in the 16-man picture for Paul Scholes.

It put Cole in tandem with Teddy Sheringham for the first time and the pounds 10.5m partnership paid an instant dividend. With his first touch Cole fed the ball forward from midfield to Sheringham. With his second he controlled the return pass. And with his third he dispatched a rising drive which took the ball, with deflected assistance from Richard Shaw, over Steve Ogrizovic and into the back of the Coventry net. The clock showed 72 seconds and, with 88 minutes left to negotiate, the challenge facing Coventry threatened to assume Everest dimensions.

The top-flight Houdinis won at Old Trafford back in 1989, but it has been all downhill - or downstairs, perhaps - for them since then. When Cole came within a whisker of connecting with a David Beckham cross and then Ryan Giggs glanced a header across their gaping goal, it seemed Coventry might be be exposed Godiva-fashion. Instead, it was United who were grasping to cover potential embarrassment.

Twice in as many minutes, midway through the first half, the overlapping Ronald Nilsson delivered right-wing crosses which stretched all the way to Dion Dublin. Unfortunately for Coventry, Dublin's header from the first was as wide as the Liffey, and his crisp first-time connection with the second was read and duly covered by the alert Peter Schmeichel. The great Dane's right-hand post was required to keep out a Dublin bicycle-kick four minutes before the break and an equaliser by the old Red, or by the hounding Darren Huckerby, looked more likely than a United second until the 72nd minute.

Even after Roy Keane scrambled in Beckham's left-wing free-kick Coventry continued to press. But Ogrizovic was beaten again, Karel Poborsky sweeping a low shot beyond his grasp after a last-minute break by Giggs. It was the final, cruel twist of an unkind plot.