Beckham runs riot as Nantes torn apart

Manchester United 5 Nantes 1
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The Independent Football

Jules Verne is Nantes' most famous son and it was just possible to believe that, when the European Cup final finishes in around 80 days' time, Manchester United might be on top of the world rather than having circumnavigated it.

Last night's demolition of the French champions, which was less emphatic than the scoreline suggested, demonstrated that however well United play (and they were not always convincing yesterday) the sheer number of goals they are capable of scoring gives them the beating of any team.

When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer headed in his second of the night, 12 minutes from the end of an enthralling, open match, it was United's heaviest victory in the Champions' League for a mere 18 months when Anderlecht were annihilated by Andy Cole. A point against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford on 13 March should be enough to ensure them a sixth successive European Cup quarter-final.

Significantly, this victory was achieved after Sir Alex Ferguson had abandoned his policy of using Ruud van Nistelrooy as a lone striker and reverted to the 4-4-2 system which has underpinned United's dramatic revival in the Premiership. Only once in the Champions' League has Solskjaer started a game and that was in a dead match at Lille.

The result would appear to have vindicated the shift in tactics, although Nantes did enough to embarrass United in the opening 30 minutes. "They did not deserve to be 3-1 down at half-time," said Ferguson, who is due to formally sign a new three-year contract today. "But some of our counter-attacking in the second half was very good and we should have scored more. To score five in any European tie these days is good going." Had Ryan Giggs not struck the post and Diego Forlan been able to convert a clear run at goal, Manchester United would have had seven.

Nantes, battling relegation at home, made five changes to the side which had held United to a 1-1 draw in Brittanny. And yet they began and ended the first half with Mauro Cetto and then Frederic Da Rocha striking the crossbar and post respectively.

Da Rocha was quick to exploit the gap in midfield between Giggs and Juan Sebastian Veron and in the 18th minute, with Denis Irwin badly out of position, he clipped Pierre-Yves André's low, quick cross past Fabien Barthez. Even after the restart, when they were out of contention, André continued to lead the Nantes attack with verve before the enormous weight of United's firepower overwhelmed them.

The key to United in the Champions' League is that they will invariably score and Nantes were to enjoy their lead for fewer than 60 seconds as David Beckham, the catalyst for three goals last night, drove a free-kick from 25 yards beyond Mickaël Landreau, who in the Stade de la Beaujoire had defied United for 93 minutes.

Confidence began to seep from French shirts when Irwin atoned for his earlier error with an expertly-timed pass to Van Nistelrooy on United's right. The Dutchman's cross was nodded back in by Giggs and headed home by Solskjaer, on his 29th birthday, for his 17th goal in 20 appearances this season.

He would not have celebrated any harder than Mickaël Silvestre, who, having begun his football with Nantes' Breton rivals, Rennes, would have relished heading in Beckham's floated free-kick from the right to give the half-time score a lopsided, unrealistic look.

Nevertheless, in the 63rd minute, United's passage to the quarter-finals of the European Cup was virtually assured when, in a mirror image of what had happened at La Beaujoire, Van Nistelrooy converted a penalty which equalled Dwight Yorke's record of eight Champions' League goals in a single season.

It arrived when Nestor Fabbri, a member of Argentina's 1990 World Cup squad which had scrapped its way to the final, brought down the Dutchman as he followed Solskjaer's flick-on. In Nantes last Wednesday, Ferguson had observed that no goalkeeper in the world would have saved Van Nistelrooy's spot-kick. His 30th strike of the season was equally emphatic and would have defeated a happy combination of Peter Shilton and Lev Yashin, let alone Landreau.

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Barthez; Irwin, G Neville, Blanc (Johnsen, 68), Silvestre; Beckham, Keane (Butt, 74), Veron, Giggs; Solskjaer, Van Nistelrooy (Forlan, 68). Substitutes not used: P Neville, Scholes, Yorke, Carroll (gk).

Nantes: (5-4-1) Landreau; Deroff, Cetto, Fabbri, Armand, Ateba (Vahirua, 62); Da Rocha, Berson, Djemba (Savinaud, 58), Ziani (Quint, 78); Andre. Substitutes not used: Ahamada, Devineau, Moldovan, Grondin (gk).

Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).