Football: United lose focus at the crucial moment

Manchester United 0 Aston Villa 0
Manchester United kept yet another of their Premiership rivals scoreless last night. The problem was that their own woeful lack of attacking precision limited the inroads that they were able to make on Liverpool's lead at the top of the table.

What early promise they showed petered out in an untidy and unfocused performance, typified by a couple of glaring misses from players who have often been matchwinners in the past.

In the final analysis, United's best chances to continue their title- chasing run of three successive victories came and went in the first 25 minutes.

Roy Keane won the ball in typically robust fashion to release Eric Cantona as early as the third minute. His cross was met by Ryan Giggs on the far post but he tried to blast the ball through the back of the net rather than picking his spot with either head or boot and his volley flashed wide.

If Cantona was never to show quite as neat a touch again, Giggs worked commendably hard to try to make amends for his miss. The way he won the ball from Savo Milosevic on the edge of his own penalty area was exemplary, as was his dash down the left touchline.

The ball was then perfectly served up for Cantona, whose weak finish was easily swallowed up by Mark Bosnich.

It was that sort of frustrating night for United, when leading players failed to do what is expected of them almost as routine.

"In a game like that you need to take your good chances," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said.

Nor was it a matter of United battering away at umambitious opponents who had merely come to Old Trafford hoping to contain and escape with a point.

Villa did defend with considerable resolution, but they also gave United's defence any number of uncomfortable moments, not least when Milosevic went down in the area under Keane's challenge.

Had the referee, David Elleray, been on the other side of that tackle, he would surely have pointed to the spot.

Milosevic was involved in an ugly clash with David Beckham, another United player notably lacking his normal elegance on the ball last night, before half-time which saw both men booked. But he was also a recurring danger to United's defenders, making it all the more important that David May kept a tight rein on Dwight Yorke.

Milosevic forced a couple of good saves from Peter Schmeichel, while Mark Draper and Andy Townsend both had efforts blocked.

With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer totally anonymous in United's attack, it was inevitable that the Old Trafford crowd would begin to call for the introduction of a player of whom they once collectively despaired in the hopes of conjuring a goal at the other end.

Andy Cole duly replaced the Norwegian midway through the second half and it was to him that the third of United's match-winning chances fell.

The ball broke to him in the most inviting of positions in front of Bosnich's goal and his turn and shot were instinctive and instant.

The goalkeeper threw himself to block the ball, however, and the fans were denied a happy ending that would have been almost too neat and tidy.

In fact, it summed up Villa's own stamina and enterprise that their substitute, Tommy Johnson, went equally close to winning the match, his volley demanding just as good a save from Schmeichel.

"Villa are very difficult customers to play against," said a philosophical Ferguson. "I'm not too disappointed by the result. The way that we are keeping teams scoreless may be shows that we are getting back to our best."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt (Scholes, 90), Giggs; Cantona, Solskjaer (Cole, 69). Substitutes not used: McClair, Poborsky, Van der Gouw (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton, Tiler; Nelson, Townsend, Draper, Taylor (Johnson, 84), Wright; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Hendrie, Farrelly, Oakes.

Referee: D Elleray (Middlesex).