Football: United take the title as red

Phil Neville swoops for his first senior goal as Ferguson's high- fliers stretch their lead at the summit; Chelsea 0 Manchester United 1 P Neville 31 Attendance: 34,511
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The Independent Online
WHAT will surely make Manchester United champions yet again, for the fifth time in six seasons, is that they are men for all season. They may have had a mid-winter dip after the heights they touched last autumn, but with the scent of the silverware that most interests them in the air, there is a spring in their step and a new flowering in their game.

As well as knowing when to pause and when to peak, United know how to adapt to conditions and circumstances. There are swift and stylish games in which they can excel, then there are those like yesterday at Stamford Bridge where they compete fiercely, physically, in their "you don't mess with United mood". Firstly, they won the midfield contest, then they won the match, with Phil Neville's first senior goal, to establish more daylight between themselves and the chasing Premiership pack, Blackburn currently the closest, 11 points behind.

There are 14 points between United and a fading Chelsea, who suffered their 10th Premiership defeat of the season - five in their last eight outings. One reason the chairman, Ken Bates, advanced for Ruud Gullit's downfall as coach was that Chelsea should be closer to United given the talent available. Beware, Gianluca Vialli.

United suffered their own downturn post-Christmas when they lost three games but Alex Ferguson's decision to rest and rotate his squad is now being vindicated as the business-end of the season arrives. They have now won their last three Premiership games and the midweek defeat by Barnsley in the FA Cup seems an irrelevance as they return to European action against Monaco on Wednesday.

They have been helped in domestic competition by rivals who glimpse the summit only to be found wanting in the mental and physical resources that set United apart when the going gets tough. Instead, United get going.

"The quality is a bit better," said the United manager, Alex Ferguson, of the top of the Premiership this season. "But the progress we have made from last season to this has been quite remarkable. I didn't expect us to play that well at the beginning of the season, especially without Roy Keane.

"Sometimes it becomes a draining session after Christmas and you can't keep the same team, but when you get them all fit again they will produce those moments again. We had little moments today that showed everything was going to be all right."

It was, though, mostly a day for battling through a game made scrappy by a blustery wind and a whole heap of attitude. Neither did the early kick-off help, though both should benefit with more preparation time for Europe this week - Chelsea travelling to Seville to play Real Betis in the Cup- Winners' Cup. When did anyone last see a good game in the morning?

In addition, Chelsea's 5-3 FA Cup humiliation by United in January clearly still rankled and they were not about to be overrun again. This time Dennis Wise was available in midfield and his spiky contest with Nicky Butt - both booked for pushing, shoving and shirt-tugging as part of a tetchy haul of six - in the first half was the game's dominant feature. That and United's midfield, again too youthful and zestful for Chelsea. Gianfranco Zola again looked lost wide on the left and Roberto di Matteo was anonymous as Paul Scholes and Co established control. Behind them, Ronnie Johnsen and Henning Berg, who replaced the injured Gary Pallister, were outstandingly solid.

Early on, Zola neatly turned Pallister to engineer some space for himself but then shot wildly wide. Having scored similarly in this fixture last season, it showed how out of sorts he and his team were, as did his fall under a challenge by Gary Neville as Vialli's low cross came in. Once he would have been looking to score, now he was looking for a penalty.

United needed one chance to find their range - the labouring Michael Duberry missing a cross and Andy Cole, then Teddy Sheringham, almost stabbing home - before scoring the game's decisive goal with the one real movement of quality.

It was started from their own goalmouth by Peter Schmeichel and when the ball came to Denis Irwin in midfield, he advanced it to Sheringham who, after a one-two with Cole, clipped through a neat pass to Phil Neville. He duly marked a rare midfield appearance with an even rarer, though well- taken, goal, drilled right-footed across Dmitri Kharine and in off the far post.

How managers see things. "We were punished for a mistake," said Vialli, later less quiet than on the field, though in fact it was all of United's creation. "As the best team in the country, Manchester United will do that." In that, at least, he is correct, but the difference was that Chelsea did not punish United when they erred.

Mark Hughes, given little change by Johnsen, almost reached Vialli's cross and Schmeichel turned aside one-handed Dan Petrescu's 25-yard shot, but that was the closest Chelsea came. The break cooled tempers but also passions and only the lively Wise threatened to create an equaliser for the home side. He supplied Petrescu and Hughes for shots but both were off target. Zola's free-kick into a wall and low shot wide from the rebound said it all.

United might have added to the margin, Sheringham playing in Cole only for Kharine to save, and Butt heading over Sheringham's flick, but points rather than goals were the priority. Now comes the main one in Monaco this week, where United will certainly scent spring.

Mission Monaco, page 12

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