Football: United's intent declared

Coventry City 0 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Online
In an age when the mental health of the leading managers is under the microscope as never before, Alex Ferguson currently exudes an aura of "been there, done that" which bodes ill for United's championship rivals.

Only Ferguson, the Premiership's longest-serving member of what Kevin Keegan called "the Grey Hair Club", would have had the self-confidence to announce publicly how long he planned to stay in the job. After his side had followed up one declaration of intent with another against a depleted Coventry, he positively bounded in to fulfil his media obligations.

In the past, notably when Leeds overtook United in the final straight in 1992, Ferguson has worn his anxiety like a badge. His doubts and demons, manifested in displays of sub-Victor Meldrew cantankerousness, transmitted themselves to the players with damaging consequences.

The "new" Fergie is not exactly going soft, as he demonstrated by denouncing the referee for not giving a penalty against his own team, yet one sensed from his demeanour that he has derived strength and impetus from events such as the turmoil on Tyneside. It is as if he has surveyed the competition and decided United have the resources to come out on top for the fourth time in five years.

On Saturday, when the fast maturing Paul Scholes combined with Eric Cantona and Roy Keane to ensure that David Beckham and Nicky Butt were hardly missed, they won comfortably in the end. Their unbeaten run stretches to 11 games, including seven wins, while they have now lost only once in 14 visits to Highfield Road.

Coventry needed to score first to have a chance of taking three points, but they were denied by a highly dubious refereeing decision. The game was still goalless when Noel Whelan's long pass sent Darren Huckerby sprinting clear soon after half-time. When Gary Neville impeded the striker the sole point of contention centred on whether or not the offence had occurred inside the 18-yard area. Mr Dunn dealt with the dilemma by waving play on.

Gordon Strachan, pitting his wits against his former manager from the dug-out for the first time, naturally felt Coventry should have had a penalty. Ferguson, who could afford to be magnanimous, supported the view with the kind of vehemence that attracts disrepute charges from the Football Association.

"I've seen this ref six times this season and he doesn't give penalties. Someone should tell him that penalties are in the laws of the game," he said, neglecting to mention that Neville would have to have been sent off had a foul been given.

Another law of the game, sod's, dictated that Coventry, having been so close to a goal, should promptly give one away. However, to dwell on Paul Telfer's hesitancy would be to detract from the magnificence of a Ryan Giggs rarity, a right-footed curling shot from 20 yards that was positively Beckhamesque in its execution.

Nothing so stylish from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the second, merely a typical predator's finish to take his League tally to 12. If that was slightly harsh on Coventry, who showed in the way they defended throughout the side that they are already a more pragmatic outfit than under Ron Atkinson, they failed to force a single save from Peter Schmeichel.

United, in fact, have conceded just one goal in seven matches, another sign that they are establishing a consistency that continues to elude the other contenders. "We needed to get a run together because we know that we've been patchy this season," Ferguson said.

"In the second half our passing was excellent and so was the movement, and it had to be because Coventry worked really hard. That's the best we've played for a few weeks. Maybe now they realise the race is on."

Goals: Giggs (61) 0-1; Solskjaer (80) 0-2.

Coventry City (3-5-2): Ogrizovic; Shaw, Borrows, Williams; Telfer, McAllister, Richardson, Jess (Hall, 81), Salako; Whelan, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Willis, McMenamin, Boland, Filan (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen (Casper, 64), Pallister, Irwin; Poborsky, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: McClair, Thornley, Cole, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Bookings: United Solskjaer, Irwin.

Man of the match: Scholes. Attendance: 23,085.