Beckham's magic dazzles Zagreb

Free-kick specialist and captain Keane sink Croatians as holders qualify to silence the doubters
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The Independent Online

It was not particularly pretty and there were no heroics on the scale of last season's epic away triumphs but, as Sir Alex Ferguson has stressed throughout, qualification is the name of the game of the Champions' League first phase and last night Manchester United made it with a match to spare. The record books will not care how they got through Group D.

It was not particularly pretty and there were no heroics on the scale of last season's epic away triumphs but, as Sir Alex Ferguson has stressed throughout, qualification is the name of the game of the Champions' League first phase and last night Manchester United made it with a match to spare. The record books will not care how they got through Group D.

They could have blown it last night by losing in the Croatian capital, but thanks to David Beckham, with his first goal of the season, and Roy Keane they brushed aside Zagreb with a commendable degree of comfort.

So comfortable, in fact, the prospect of the holders falling at the first hurdle barely surfaced, Robert Prosinecki's goal for the home side coming in injury time.

Given that they began the night with their Champions' League existence under threat, United could have arrived at the Maksimir Stadium playing better. Four successive away defeats, five points from their last five Premiership matches, their run was plumbing depths last visited three years ago.

On this occasion lack of success bred continuity and United were unchanged from the side who had been beaten 1-0 in Marseilles last week, while the only surprise about the home line-up was the absence of Prosinecki, who was on the bench.

Having drawn 0-0 at Old Trafford, the Croatians would have edged ahead of United in Group D if they won last night, which at least ensured they would be in a more attacking frame of mind. Ossie Ardiles, the Zagreb coach, also had a pretty hefty incentive to succeed as he feared for the job he took up only four months ago. It was no secret he would have been sacked had they not beaten MTK Budapest in the Champions' League qualifying round but no one had quantified what was acceptable in phase one.

The opening period was a disappointment. United looked edgy and their first attempt at goal did not arrive until the 21st minute. Even then Jaap Stam's towering leap and header never looked likely to be low enough to trouble Tomislav Butina.

Zagreb's attack also began in less than incisive style, although Edin Mujcin was furious when he did not win a penalty after tangling with Paul Scholes after 23 minutes. The irony of that would become apparent eight minutes later.

Scholes the tackler became Scholes the unfairly tackled when Daniel Saric mistimed his challenge 25 yards out on the left flank. The angle did not look promising, but Beckham's ability to contrive improbabilities with his free-kicks is one of his greatest assets and with one majestic sweep of his right foot he curled the ball beyond Butina's dive and low into the far corner. Ardiles's response was to introduce Prosinecki after 34 minutes, and within five minutes he had Mark Bosnich scampering across his goal to save low to his right.

Beckham had a chance to repeat his goal four minutes before the interval when Giggs was felled in an almost identical spot as Scholes. Butina, rightly, was furious, although the law of averages suggested there would be no repetition and this time the kick sailed harmlessly over the bar.

It had not been a vintage first half from United but it had been a successful one and there was a jauntiness to Ferguson's walk as he made his way to the dressing- room.

Within four minutes of the restart United went 2-0 ahead. Tomislav Rukavina had shaved the post with a shot from 30 yards but as the Croatian crowd anticipated a prolonged assault on the red defences, their hopes were dashed.

Denis Irwin, playing on the left to mark the dangerous Saric, had a rare chance to attack, and although his cross was met by a Zagreb head, the clearance fell to Keane 25 yards out.

The United captain has made a habit of hammering volleys in from that range in Europe and on this occasion he was helped by a deflection which took the ball away from Butina's dive.

You could almost see the belief drain away from the Zagreb players and the home crowd had to make do with empty victories, cheering a goal for Marseilles in Graz, before Prosinecki's late strike. United were just grateful they had given them so little else to celebrate. Even Scholes' booking for a reckless challenge on Mario Tokic went in their favour because the England midfielder will be suspended for the final match against Sturm.

Croatia Zagreb (3-5-2): Butina; Sedloski, Juric (Prosinecki, 34),Tomas; Saric, Rukavina, Tokic, Mujcin, Cvitanovic (Mumlek, 68); Sokota, Mikic (Simic, 53). Substitutes not used: Krznar, Pavlovic, Kozniku, Vasilj (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; P Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Greening, 67), Giggs; Yorke (Solskjaer, 58), Cole (Cruyff, 78). Substitutes not used: May, Clegg, Higginbotham, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: D Jol (Netherlands).

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