Charlton Athletic 1 Manchester United 3: United's youngsters step up to fill the void

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The Independent Football

Alan Curbishley let Ferguson use the television in his own office and said that when they came to share a drink after the match he found his old friend "as happy as can be". "He was all right," Curbishley explained, "he's bloody won again hasn't he?" The Charlton manager said the subject of Keane had not even been raised which, if accurate, would suggest that even those who know Ferguson best find it difficult to summon the courage to question him about the resolution of the problem that has been gnawing at him for weeks.

The first day of life after Keane ended with a tribute from Ruud van Nistelrooy live on television that had a level of emotion and profundity rare by the standard of post-match interviews. The Dutch striker conceded that he "needed time to deal with" the departure of the man he described as "the greatest player" he had played alongside. His response to whether it ushered in a new era would have been less easy for Ferguson to accept: "It's difficult to say," Van Nistelrooy said.

As captain for the day, Van Nistelrooy was the only player permitted by United to discuss Keane and his openness about his feelings surrounding the departure of his former team-mate will have struck a chord with the Irishman himself. "It's just a shame that his time has stopped now," Van Nistelrooy said. The rest of his team-mates were told by Ferguson that their own thoughts on the matter should not be made public.

Post-Keane, United look very much like they have for the last two months, a team that relies upon the brilliance of Wayne Rooney rather than the drive that their former captain once provided them from midfield. The 20-year-old's run past two Charlton defenders, and flick to Van Nistelrooy for the second United goal, was the game's outstanding moment - closely followed by the striker's swivel and finish that restored the lead on 70 minutes.

Unlike when United beat Chelsea two weeks' earlier there was no Keane glowering in the stands to remind his side of what the team is missing. The prospect of replacing him is no longer an unknown menace that waits to ambush them at some point in the future but a reality that must be dealt with every matchday. Alan Smith's 36th -minute goal, driven in from Darren Fletcher's pass, was the best moment of a first half in which United looked liberated and fearless in their attacking football.

Charlton managed an equaliser on 65 minutes when Darren Ambrose was allowed to run unchallenged in front of the United area and, after exchanging passes with Darren Bent, struck a shot that drifted sweetly into Edwin Van der Sar's top right corner. Rooney's run and pass to Van Nistelrooy changed the game again within four minutes and the Dutch striker sealed the win on 85 minutes with a goal that was his first in 138 for United to be hit from outside the box.

While Charlton fall to ninth, 10 points, and two places now separate United, who have a game in hand, from Chelsea. Ferguson has spoken of late of the young players in his team thriving and taking responsibility and on Saturday they did that -with a certain man now gone for good they had little choice.

Goals: Smith (36) 0-1; Ambrose (65) 1-1; Van Nistelrooy (70) 1-2; Van Nistelrooy (85) 1-3.

Charlton Athletic (4-5-1): Andersen; Young, El Karkouri, Hreidarsson, Powell; Ambrose, Murphy, Smertin, Kishishev (Bothroyd, 76), Rommedahl (Thomas, 64); Bent. Substitutes not used: Myrhe (gk). Perry, Hughes.

Manchester United: Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Fletcher (Bardsley, 89), Scholes, Smith, Ronaldo (Park, 73); Rooney, Van Nistelrooy (Richardson, 85). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Rossi.

Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire)

Booked: Manchester United: Brown, Van Nistelrooy

Man of the match: Van Nistelrooy.

Attendance: 27,100.

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