Football: United's poverty exposed

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The Independent Online
By Guy Hodgson

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Manchester United 0

THE STATE of the Premiership this season is becoming a qualitative quandary that tells whether you have a half-full or half-empty frame of mind. Either 1997-98 is a dud vintage or standards are rising so much that differences between the top and the bottom are blurred.

The optimistic will argue that English football has never had so many disparate talents and that cheap imports have allowed the likes of Southampton and Coventry to compete on almost equal terms with the financial bullies. On the other hand no one is making a serious challenge to a Manchester United team whose attention is fixed rigidly on the European Cup.

Since United were 5-0 up at Chelsea in the FA Cup on January 4, they have been little better than ordinary. True, injuries have played their debilitating part, but that is two months of indifferent form in which they have lost three times in the League and yet they are still nine points clear.

They have already been beaten as many times this season as last and they still have nine fixtures to go. At this rate just winning their matches at Old Trafford should be enough to gain them their fifth title in six years which is not a ringing endorsement for the chasing pack.

This match was definitely not one for the rose-tinted view. Wednesday were excellent but that should not disguise the poverty of United. Weary from their trip to Monaco in midweek and bothered by the heavy pitch they looked like ponderous and ageing heavyweights trying to land a punch on lighter, nimbler opponents. The verve of autumn had gone like the leaves on the trees.

The midfield was all ifs and Butt and with Teddy Sheringham's radar askew and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer marooned on the left wing the attack crashed itself into impotence on the rocks of Des Walker and Jon Newsome. Paul Scholes might have got a hat-trick, I hear you cry.

To be fair, United could have played a lot better and still have lost to Wednesday who were as good on Saturday as they were bad the previous weekend at Pride Park. "If we'd played like that today we'd have lost 36-0," Ron Atkinson, their manager said afterwards. "I've driven past Derby eight times this week trying to find my team and today it looks like I've found it."

He certainly did. On paper a central midfield of converted defenders Peter Atherton and Dejan Stefanovic did not look creative but with Paolo Di Canio touching unprecedented Wednesday heights, Andy Booth rampant in the air and Benito Carbone giving, in turn, Henning Berg, Phil Neville and John Curtis a torrid time at left-back they did not have to be.

Things might have been radically altered had Kevin Pressman not made an extraordinary save from Solskjaer after 16 minutes but once Atherton arrived like a train to head in a corner midway through the first half there was a strange inevitably about the outcome.

The introduction of Scholes at half-time nearly revised his manager's opinion, particularly when he crashed a volley against the bar after 49 minutes but, in case that suggests United were unlucky, it ought to be pointed out Di Canio hit the bar and Stefanovic a post in a bewildering flurry in the second half.

Enough to say that when Di Canio got his fitting reward with a goal three minutes from time, the champions had mentally conceded the match sufficiently that they made only half-hearted protests that David May had stopped the ball before it crossed the line.

They looked a tired team when they left Hillsborough and there will be no let-up because there are fixtures against West Ham and Arsenal in the next five days. Is there a danger they might be caught? "When you've got the chance of reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup it's a risk you have to take," Ferguson replied, neatly underlining where his priorities lie.

Fittingly for a man just back from Monte Carlo, his mood is win or bust. Frankly the challenge has been so limp this time, the latter is unlikely.

Goals: Atherton (26) 1-0; Di Canio (87) 2-0.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Barrett, Newsome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Carbone, Atherton, Stefanovic, Pembridge (Whittingham, 49); Di Canio (Oakes, 89), Booth. Substitutes not used: Nicol, Mayrleb, Clarke (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; G Neville, May, Johnsen (Scholes, h/t), Berg; Beckham, P Neville (Curtis, 60), Butt, Solksjaer; Sheringham, Cole (McClair, 77). Substitutes not used: Thornley, Pilkington (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Wednesday: Barrett. United: May.

Man of the match: Di Canio.

Attendance: 39,427.