Football: United tense as hopes of Treble rise

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 2 Aston Villa 1

IN PRINT it seems so simple. "The Holy Grail is within sight," a leaflet handed out on Sir Matt Busby Way read. "We are 25 days away from the treble. Twenty-five days from history."

Two days later and the first trial has been overcome. The figure has dropped to 23 although the six, as in matches, is the more pertinent figure. Win all those and an astonishing season will be complete. "It's too tense," one woman supporter said. "I almost wish I could go to sleep and wake up after it's all over."

If Alex Ferguson is anxious he is hiding it wonderfully. The closer the United manager comes to elevating his reputation from mere greatness to a place alongside the football gods the more sanguine he becomes. He even admitted to making a mistake on Saturday which had some reporters banging their ears for fear their hearing was faulty.

"I say it's not torture but sheer bliss," Ferguson wrote in the programme. "I hope you supporters are also just as thrilled because this is not something that you should take for granted. This is a special season, no matter what happens on the last lap, and you should enjoy it because you may never see the like again."

He is probably right although when United's supporters look back in the years to come it is unlikely this match will loom large. Without six players, the home team did enough and no more to win the game, conserving their energy for eight days beginning on Wednesday that will dictate their fate in the Premiership because Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough, all away, form a formidable barrier.

Particularly as, for the first time, United's players appeared to be aware of the achievements within their grasp. They were edgy towards the end and goalmouth scrambles did nothing to soothe the nerves. Dennis Irwin even had a penalty saved and he last showed signs of excitement when he was taken to a shoe shop for his first pair of football boots.

Fortunately for United they were already ahead and his lapse did not matter. Julian Joachim had equalised Steve Watson's own goal but one thing you do not do when David Beckham is around is commit fouls within eyesight range of your goal. Or if you do, you make sure you construct a defensive wall.

In the first half Villa had been cute enough to put Gareth Southgate on the line to head clear the Brooklyn Bomber's kick, so why they were so daft as to leave the route clear was beyond everyone, Ferguson and his Villa counterpart John Gregory included.

Beckham, like a golfer pitching to a par three, spent an age getting the ball just right on the ground and if he had spent an equal amount of time with a ruler trying to find the perfect spot in the top corner he could not have done a better job. Michael Oakes was not more than a yard from the ball and did not move.

"You can talk to the supporters where we are," Gregory said, "I said to one, `Michael's top left' and he said, `top right'. Just shows what I know. With Beckham's ability, free-kicks from that range are as good as a penalty."

Beckham is far, far more than just an accurate shot and in this game he was a delight. His crosses are borne reluctantly by defences all over Europe, but he allies his ability with a prodigious work-rate. Some gifted players make mistakes, shrug their shoulders and allow others to repair the damage; he chases back like an agent after his commission. So does Ryan Giggs. And Dwight Yorke. And Andy Cole. And... maybe that is United's secret.

Ferguson afterwards admitted that withdrawing Jesper Blomqvist, who has a foot injury and rarely lasts 90 minutes, wrecked the balance of the side. "We survived the mistakes of the manager, too," he said with a smile. That grin may or may not become a feature of our television sets during May.

The leaflets pointing the route to United's grail were printed in black and red. Only time will tell which colour is more appropriate.

Goals: Watson og (19) 1-0; Joachim (33) 1-1; Beckham (46) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May (Brown, 78), Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Blomqvist (P Neville, 62); Sheringham, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Wilson, Greening, Van der Gouw (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Oakes; Watson, Calderwood, Southgate, Wright; Stone, Draper (Thompson, 66), Taylor, Merson; Dublin (Vassell, 75), Joachim. Substitutes not used: Barry, Ehiogu, Enckelman (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Booking: Aston Villa: Taylor.

Man of the match: Beckham.

Attendance: 55,189.