Football: United dig for victory

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The Independent Online
Everton. . . . . . . . .0

Manchester United. . . .1

THE idea that coming close to European Cup defeat by the Turkish champions, Galatasaray, in midweek would concentrate minds at Manchester United proved less than the truth when they went to Goodison Park yesterday. Though a stunning volley from Lee Sharpe brought them more points and an extended lead, confidence was not fully restored, neither would the performance have sent threatening messages to Turkey.

It did enough to convince Howard Kendall, the Everton manager, that United will not now be caught, but Alex Ferguson was more down to earth: 'We just dug out a result.' The United manager's anger at his team's lackadaisical attitude against Galatasaray manifested itself in the dropping of Bryan Robson and, suprisingly, Ryan Giggs whom, he considered, was tired but was also one of those who had been self-indulgent on Wednesday. Quite why United pay Giggs a large amount of money if it is not to get tired, run with the ball and indulge his rare skills is difficult to understand.

Self-doubt, not Everton, was United's main adversary. Galatasaray, underestimated, skilful and persistent, had questioned United's skill and more than matched their endurance. With england all but out of the World Cup, the champions' task had been to salvage some pride, but, like England, they had discovered that foreign opponents who a decade ago would have been overwhelmed are now playing a fruitful version of the British game, blending tenacity with inventiveness.

Everton expected a backlash from United, but not the absence of Giggs, which came as a relief. Ferguson chose to include Brian McClair, not in the 'hole', as you would have expected, but on the right of midfield, which seemed a waste of his instincts as a striker. Everton envied United their luxury since they were without Paul Rideout, and it showed.

Rideout's absence was put into relief when, early on, Stuart Barlow tamely rejected a fine chance to take Everton ahead, when Roy Keane was uncharacteristically dispossessed and Tony Cottee could make nothing of a further opportunity once Peter Schmeichel had blocked the initial shot.

United were far from ready to make Evertpon pay the price for being the next to face them after the European embarrassment. Their approach was much more that of a team still in shock, and Everton simply moved the ball around comfortably, though never very effectively, while United rarely infiltrated their penalty area.

Far from attacking the game with the purpose of regaining their confidence, United's conception of the afternoon's work seemed to be that of quietly playing themselves into a position from which they might snatch a goal against the run of play, which Sharpe achieved magnificently.

Quiet would have been a complimentary description of a first half in which the absence of Giggs deprived the game of one player who might have brought some colour to what was a fearfully dull event. Only some neat and inventive, though unfulfilled, ball control by Barry Horne was anything like worth the entrance money. At least United could claim that with Dennis Irwin reinstated in defence they looked more secure, but since neither side offered anything more than token attacks, that was not difficult. Indeed, 53 minutes had passed before the first serious shot of the day arrived. And arrive it certainly did, out of the blue and straight into the Blues' net, sweetly from Sharpe.

United had been nibbling away with half-hearted counter-attacks when Eric Cantona found Lee Martin on the left and, from his centre, Dave Watson attempted a headed clearance that fell directly into the path of Sharpe who volleyed a huge drive beyond Neville Southall for a goal the game hardly deserved but badly needed.

Peter Beagrie was Everton's hope of recovery, though when his best chance came after 78 minutes he found himself directly in front of Peter Schmeichel and with time to take stock of the situation. Instead Schmeichel took stock of him and blocked the shot.

Had United been in pre-Galatasaray form, certainly Everton would have gone down by several goals. As it was Cantona had one of those days when he seemed to be dreaming of becoming a New Age traveller, and Mark Hughes travelled nowhere.

In spite of causing their share of the game's poverty, United felt that to win was all they needed and never mind how it looked. Had the referee awarded them a penalty later in the game when Sharpe was tripped by Paul Holmes, the margin of that win would have been out of proportion. As therapy all they really needed was the thought of a nine-point lead.

(Photograph omitted)