Football: United find plenty of devil in Saints

Manchester United 2 Southampton 1
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The Independent Online
ALEX FERGUSON was scanning the horizon and, although he did not particularly like what he was looking at, he realised a truth. The game just behind him was possibly the most difficult his Manchester United team will face in the closing weeks of the season.

That might sound ridiculous with Internazionale (twice), Chelsea and Liverpool on the immediate agenda, but they are big games where motivation is not necessary. If ever United were going to get caught out by complacency, it was in this one.

Southampton, second bottom, against the free-scoring United? It's a forgone conclusion, isn't it? Well the home players strutted round the pitch like it was and they only just got away with it.

Three points is three points for which they will be grateful but James Beattie hit the bar and the post in the second half so Southampton can count themselves unlucky even if United had two efforts cleared off the line. To be frank, Ferguson's team played about as poorly as they have all season.

"It was a careless performance with no pace to our game," Ferguson groaned, "but it's in the nature of players to look forward to a big game. It started off at practice match pace and we didn't put a tackle in for 30 minutes."

Which will irritate Dave Jones, the Southampton manager, who said afterwards that opposing teams never get the credit for their part when United underperform. But the home players could not have looked more preoccupied with Inter and Wednesday than if they had pasted Ronaldo pictures on their chests.

Sharp was the logo there but blunt would have been more appropriate as United exposed an irritating trait that had also been revealed against Fulham in the FA Cup, that to outside eyes they appear to think they can score whenever they can be bothered to get off the couch.

They cannot, and although Dwight Yorke and Ryan Giggs had headers cleared off the line by Patrick Colleter and David Hughes it was not until Roy Keane, who would put backbone in an amoeba, appeared with smoke billowing from his nostrils that United began to resemble a team with a championship to chase.

Even then it was only when Beattie rattled the bar with a header and an obviously overweight Matt Le Tissier began to shake their presumptions that United found their real urgency. A low drive from Keane and a glorious pass from Beckham to Yorke resulted in goals and Old Trafford was left to wonder whether Saint Matt would have been allowed the freedom of the penalty area in the last moments if Beattie had not missed a sitter after 89 minutes.

Probably not, but Ferguson will be relieved few of the remaining fixtures will allow his players to switch off. Maybe a message emanates from the United manager when he rests Jaap Stam, Keane, Denis Irwin and Andy Cole but unless he takes a relaxed view of the FA Cup next weekend there will not be many occasions to deliver it.

Only four of United's last 10 League games are at Old Trafford which is possibly a blessing because the hostile atmosphere will not allow complacency to breed and any escape from the dreadful pitch must be a blessing. It is probably not a coincidence that their most prolific days in recent weeks have been on their travels.

"We're top of the League and it's the right place to be," Ferguson said. "We have a tough programme and although there are a few away from home I don't think that daunts us. Maybe that was the trickiest one today because all the rest are big ones."

Southampton will love that, but with Inter looming the sentiment was understandable. You wonder how much longer the Saints and the Red Devils will remain in the same league even if the former escape relegation this season.

Goals: Keane (79) 1-0; Yorke (83) 2-0; Le Tissier (90) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Johnsen, P Neville (Irwin, 78); Beckham, Butt (Keane, h-t), Scholes, Giggs; Yorke, Solskjaer (Cole, 67).

Substitutes not used: Brown, Blomqvist.

Southampton (4-4-2): Jones; Dodd, Lundekvam, Monkou (Benali, 50), Colleter; Hughes, Marsden, Oakley, Bridge; Ostenstad (Le Tissier, 67), Beattie. Substitutes not used: Hiley, Bradley, Moss (gk).

Bookings: Southampton: Colleter, Le Tissier.

Referee: P Jones (Lougborough).

Man of the match: Beckham.

Attendance: 55,316.