Football: United sound a warning to rivals

Manchester United 5 Wimbledon 1

KENNY CUNNINGHAM admitted that, when they looked through United's team-sheet for the traditionally tricky game before a European appointment, he and his Wimbledon team-mates homed in on the name of Wes Brown as a possible weak link.

Cunningham should have known they were tempting Providence and inviting Brown to play a major role in an outstanding team performance.

The 19-year-old Mancunian's eventual future in the the first team probably lies in central defence, but the way he slotted with complete assurance into a relatively unfamiliar position, at right-back, marks him as a versatile talent.

"We knew what to expect of him," said Alex Ferguson. "He's a natural centre-half, but he's so quick and comfortable on the ball that you can play him in another position like we did today."

Despite a bristling midfield display from Roy Keane and the continuous movement and threat of Andy Cole, it was Brown's contribution that underlined the depth of ability United have at their disposal.

Joe Kinnear, again lamenting the widening gulf between the best and the rest of the Premiership, revealed that he had tried to buy both Brown and John Curtis, who also played a part late in the game, last summer.

Those are the sort of bargains Wimbledon must pursue if they are to maintain their status. "Our players want to come to these big places. They want to come here next season, but when you come you find they've spent pounds 20m on top of what they had before," said Kinnear.

Cunningham will vouch for that, especially after having to re-assess Brown so rapidly. "We were wondering if we might be able to get at him, but as the game went on he grew in stature and looked an outstanding prospect."

The way in which Brown and Phil Neville on the other flank supported their wing men underlined the fact that United's title challenge will be built on tireless and selfless teamwork, as well as natural talent.

In another sense, the burgeoning link between Cole and Yorke reinforces the same point. Not content to cruise through on instinct, the two have been doing extra work together in training to hone their understanding. It shows; the way that they could find each other's feet, at speed, in congested areas, in difficult conditions, speaks clearly of their combination getting even better.

It is anyone's guess, given the alternatives, how often Keane and Ryan Giggs will play together in the centre of midfield, but theirs was another partnership - one of steel and silk - that thrived in this match. Keane's power and pugnacity have rarely been seen to better effect, whilst Giggs has all the creativity required to slot in alongside him.

Apart from their five goals, United also hit the post and the bar, had two efforts cleared off the line and were denied by at least a couple of truly top-class saves from Scotland's new first-choice goalkeeper, Neil Sullivan.

Goals: Cole (19) 1-0; Euell (39) 1-1; Giggs (45) 2-1; Beckham (48) 3- 1; Yorke (54) 4-1; Cole (88) 5-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; Brown, Stam, G Neville, P Neville (Curtis, 73); Beckham (Cruyff, 56), Keane, Giggs (Scholes, 66), Blomqvist; Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Solskjaer, Berg.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble (Ardley, h-t); Euell, Earle, Roberts, Thatcher; Leaburn (Gayle, h-t), Hughes. Substitutes not used: Kennedy, Cort, Heald (gk).

Referee: G Willard (West Sussex).

Bookings: United: Stam, Roberts.

Man of the match: Keane.

Attendance: 55,265.

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