Football: United's escape to victory

Race for the Premiership: Johnsen and Bergkamp maintain the title suspense; Manchester United 2 Johnsen 83, Scholes 90 Wimbledon 0 Attendance: 5 5,306
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The Independent Online
IF THE computer that arranges fixtures had a soul it would have felt a tinge of sympathy for Manchester United. The pairing of the ailing champions with the defiant champions of the underdogs was almost perverse. It took United 82 minutes of predominately guileless football to break them down at Old Trafford yesterday and even when they created a presentable score they could only have presented Arsenal with more confidence in the title race.

Alex Ferguson demurred, suggesting it was a triumph for perseverance and a "very, very good result against the team that can defend against anyone". However, that sounded more like relief than serious reflection and he did admit that Arsenal were in the "driving seat".

With their dreams of European glory gone, United were playing for their credibility as the team that not many weeks ago many people said was their best for 40 years. They badly needed to consolidate and take out their frustration on someone, especially as the European disappointment had compounded the recent defeat by Arsenal. But Wimbledon compliant victims - never! And to trouble United further, they were again without Ryan Giggs, whose hamstring injury had been aggravated in training, as well as Peter Schmeichel, Nicky Butt, and Teddy Sheringham.

Given their weakened team and the need to rearrange themselves, with David Beckham playing more or less in Giggs' role rather than as a wide midfield attacker, the last thing United wanted was to concede the chance of an early advantage. But they did. First, Paul Scholes slammed a shot into the side netting, then Andy Cole was at his profligate worst when moving on to a huge clearance by Raimond van der Gouw but driving his shot directly at Neil Sullivan.

Wimbledon composed themselves in the considered way that marks the difference between their actual style and that of their perceived reputation. The Vinnie Jones fire may be missing but the ability to absorb pressure and counter with the power of Marcus Gayle and Carl Leaburn is not to be taken lightly.

United responded with an unusual concentration of long balls that largely went uncontrolled. Meanwhile, Wimbledon gave away free-kicks just outside their penalty area which, even from Beckham, largely went blisteringly wide. Little went right for United in the first half, though little went wrong.

It was an appropriate summary of all that had gone before when in the last seconds of the first half Denis Irwin drifted a centre to Cole, who was unable to take advantage. The ball dropped kindly to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but the Norwegian's volley was beaten down by the ever-diligent Ben Thatcher.

Wimbledon's impressive ability to support their front men in numbers yet return to defend at equal pace defied United's prolonged pressure. Their defensive tackling was similarly positive and it would have been unrepresentative if an horrendous error by their goalkeeper, Sullivan, eight minutes into the second half had cost them a goal. Sullivan's miskick offered Solskjaer a direct shot at goal. Instead he planted it straight back at Sullivan, then compounded his error by miskicking an inviting pass across the penalty area from Phil Neville.

Even in defeat this season United have not looked so lacking in imagination. The absence of Giggs severely limits United's pace on the wing as well as restricting their openings. When that was added to their wretched finishing, frustration set in.

Solskjaer remained the one most likely to break Wimbledon's concentration but his own was open to doubt. Yet another chance to shoot from six yards saw him again find defenders closing the gap. Cole followed up but his drive was handled on to the post by Sullivan, leaving Wimbledon nothing more to do than defend the corner. United pressed deeper and deeper without any change of fortune and Cole hit another shot at Sullivan.

They finally saved themselves with only eight minutes left. Beckham's corner came to the near post where a clutter of players hovered. The ball deflected off them and Ronny Johnsen hit it first time, at last, beyond Sullivan. That United scored again in injury time when the substitute Ben Thornley centred, Beckham pulled the ball back and Scholes hit it in was more than they deserved.