Football: Virtuoso Giggs keeps United at the pinnacle

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 2 Southampton 1

If United were under the impression that Southampton would be so deflated by their experiences in midweek that they would provide only token resistance at Old Trafford, they were rapidly disillusioned.

Saints reacted to their humiliation by Stockport County with enterprise and imagination - starting with their line-up.

When Alex Ferguson found the unfamiliar name of Steve Basham on their team-sheet, he assumed he must be a defender or midfielder. Instead, Basham played up front alongside Egil Ostenstad, with Southampton's creative players, Eyan Berkovitch and Matt Le Tissier, on the wings.

It was a surprising approach and one which, as Ferguson admitted, wrong- footed the Premiership leaders. Ostenstad's opening goal highlighted the problems they caused and it is quite possible that they would have returned to the South Coast with something from this game had it not been for the persistent excellence of Ryan Giggs.

Giggs has not had, by his standards, the greatest of seasons so far. Indeed, there is a persuasive theory that, having reached the pinnacle of the Premiership without either him or Eric Cantona firing on all cylinders, United still have their most potent weapons in reserve for the title run- in.

Giggs kept little in reserve on Saturday. His close control, incisive running and - most of all - his varied and accurate crossing were the elements in United's game that made it inevitable that Southampton would eventually crack.

His virtuoso performance meant that, after Gary Pallister's equaliser, virtually everyone in the side had an opportunity to win the game. But, as against Wimbledon in midweek, chance after chance went missing. "Wasteful" was Ferguson's word for the current failing, and he knows that it is not one they will get away with indefinitely.

Cantona had been as much at fault as anyone, putting a couple of efforts wide and hesitating long enough to allow Alan Neilson to make a saving tackle when put through on the goalkeeper.

But there was a touch of the decisive, imperious Cantona of Premiership- winning memory in the way he swept home the centre from - who else? - Giggs for the long-delayed winner.

"He's the best there is at scoring vital goals," Ferguson said. "He could have had three or four today." Typically, he got the one that mattered, and United came through an awkward afternoon unscathed.

Goals: Ostenstad (11) 0-1; Pallister (19) 1-1; Cantona (80) 2- 1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Clegg (Johnsen 83), G Neville, Pallister, Irwin; Poborsky (Cole 74), Keane, Beckham, Giggs; Cantona, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: McClair, Cruyff, Van der Gouw (gk).

Southampton (4-4-2): Taylor; Neilson, Monkou, Dryden, Charlton (Robinson 61); Berkovitch (Hughes 61), Magilton, Maddison, Le Tissier; Basham, Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Van Gobbel, Potter, Beasant (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds). Bookings: Southampton Dryden, Neilson, Ostenstad, Le Tissier.

Man of the match: Giggs. Attendance: 55,269.