Brown earns plaudits as Blanc shows age

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The Independent Football

David Beckham's instincts were those of the professional: "It was not the prettiest of football," said the Manchester United captain of his team's laboured victory over Lille, "but a win is a win."

Outside the home dressing-room it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Lille and their giant, shaven-headed centre-half, Pascal Cygan, who had not only kept United at bay but built a platform to have mounted enough counter-attacks to have actually won the match.

It is 82 games since any English side managed a goalless draw with Manchester United, and Lille, newly arrived in the Champions' League from the French Second Division, came within a minute of achieving what would have been a rare and precious triumph.

Before the match, Sir Alex Ferguson had talked of playing cavalier football and giving spectators collective heart-attacks. Last night his watchwords were patience and discipline, although when looking forward to Tuesday's much more dangerous encounter in La Coruna he gave a half-smile. "No team in the world scores more away goals than us." The grin did not linger.

The United manager had remarked that what would interest him most about last night's game was the impact made by his three new signings, although after a ragged defensive display at St James' Park most eyes would have fallen on the ageing shoulders of Laurent Blanc, and the Frenchman suffered by comparison with Wes Brown.

In the first half, he and Brown were challenged down the right flank by the pace of Bruno Cheyrou. Blanc gave substance to their coach, Vahid Halilhodzic's remarks that "he is no Maurice Greene", although it seemed he would struggle to keep pace with Alan Green as Cheyrou streaked past. Brown, demonstrating the difference of youth, produced an impeccable tackle, part of what Ferguson described as "a perfect performance".

Ruud van Nistelrooy drew only compliments from Ferguson, although his turn-and-spin in the box, which led to Beckham's goal, needed a deflection before it found its mark.

However, against expectations, Ferguson chose to play Juan Sebastian Veron, rather than Paul Scholes behind the Dutchman. "We knew Fernando D'Amico would man-mark one of our players and we thought Juan Sebastian had more experience of it than Paul. The problem was that in the first half we were reluctant to pass to him because he was man-marked. I had to tell them he was used to it."

Ferguson said the lone striker experiment would continue in future Champions' League games, which would have been a leaden sound to the ears of Andy Cole. This time last year, United had begun their campaign against Anderlecht, based not 50 miles from Lille, and destroyed them 5-1.

Cole had scored a hat-trick, and in doing so surpassed Denis Law's record number of European goals. They were to be his last in a United shirt in the Champions' League and last night he failed even to make the bench.