Football: United fail to rouse the faithful

Manchester United 2 Derby County 0
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The Independent Online
By Phil Shaw

Manchester United 2 Derby County 0

OLD TRAFFORD buzzes with atmosphere even when it is empty, Tommy Docherty says of his old stamping ground, likening it to a cathedral. Curious, then, that with 55,000 inside and United closing in on the championship, the stadium was often as becalmed as a suburban church.

Derby's knot of disciples picked up on this anomaly. In the game's final moments, when the songs of praise should have been ringing out as news of Chelsea and Blackburn's misfortunes filtered through, a mocking "Shush" emanated from the visitors' pen.

Perhaps, after four titles in five seasons, Alex Ferguson's flock have become blase about the prize which, for 26 years, was United's holy grail. There may, however, have been a more perturbing reason why the defeat of Derby had all the passion of a pro-celebrity curling match.

The plain truth is that United, now barely a week away from their European Cup quarter- final in Monaco, have not produced a compelling performance since the first weekend of the year at Chelsea.

The failings of others have meant that their indifferent form has not been costly in the Premiership. "Cruising", as the Derby manager, Jim Smith, described it, is all very well. Stepping up a gear or two against the French champions may prove problematic, especially now that Ryan Giggs will miss the tie after pulling a hamstring in the later stages on Saturday.

The Welshman had a one-man exemption clause from United's bloodless display. He played with singular verve, scoring exhilaratingly (following the season's longest one-two with Andy Cole) and harassing the coltish Rory Delap into conceding the penalty with which the leaders sealed the points.

Giggs' indisposition will deprive United of the pace and vision needed to unlock Monaco's defence. The two elements are to be found separately in Cole and Teddy Sheringham; the beauty of Giggs is that he combines both.

Ferguson must also give thought to the balance of central midfield. With Paul Scholes struggling to shrug off a knee injury and Roy Keane a long- term absentee, he paired Nicky Butt and Phil Neville against Derby. But, as Butt showed in England's colours against Chile, his industry requires a more creative foil.

The attritional nature of English football is such that United face two away fixtures in four days before leaving for Monte Carlo. Given that they return to Stamford Bridge in the Premiership next Saturday, it would have been hard to imagine Ferguson fielding his strongest side in Wednesday's FA Cup replay at Barnsley. Now, though, the unavailability of Giggs and Scholes, not to mention Berg, Solskjaer and Johnsen, will make it harder to rest other key players.

Without finding the penetration to match their approach work, Derby gave Monaco's spies food for thought. In particular, they highlighted the continuing unease between Gary Pallister and Peter Schmeichel. While the centre- back avoided the embarrassment he has suffered before against Paulo Wanchope, the Costa Rican's fluidity hinted at the damage Colombia's forwards might inflict should the campaign for Pallister's recall by England succeed.

It cannot have escaped Ferguson's notice that the most "Continental" defender on view was a fellow Scot. The player in question is combative, versatile and just 24. He not only made strong runs into midfield and used the ball intelligently, but thwarted Cole twice at critical moments through speed of thought and movement.

Far be it for the media to tell the champions who they should be buying. But, with a name like Christian Dailly, who better to restore the religious fervour to Old Trafford?

Goals: Giggs (18) 1-0; Irwin pen (70) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Irwin (Clegg, 75); Beckham, P Neville, Butt, Giggs (McClair, 79); Sheringham, Cole (Cruyff, 75). Substitutes not used: Casper, Van der Gouw (gk).

Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Rowett, Stimac, Dailly; Delap (Willems, 87), Eranio, Carsley, C Powell; Baiano; Wanchope, Sturridge. Substitutes not used: D Powell, Elliott, Kozluk, Hoult (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Derby: Delap, Sturridge.

Man of the match: Giggs.

Attendance: 55,170.