Exit United's chief executive, enter their chief executioner

Charlton Athletic 0 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Football

They may have lost a chief executive to Chelsea, their most celebrated player to Real Madrid and the previous Premiership match to Southampton, but as Sir Bobby Charlton said last week: "Manchester United are still Manchester United." That meant that without touching any great heights, they were still good enough to see off a Charlton challenge that was spirited but suffered from lack of penetration and then the sending-off of Jason Euell for two striker's challenges. Even at 35, Paolo di Canio will bring something to their party over the course of a season, but on his home debut yesterday he was hanging back sipping mineral water rather than dominating the dance floor.

United, already missing four players, lost Roy Keane early in the second half and will be under strength for their opening Champions' League game against Panathinaikos on Tuesday. But Rio Ferdinand, John O'Shea and Nicky Butt all returned earlier than expected and there was a welcome bonus too in the result at Highbury, which cut the gap on Arsenal at the head of the table to a point. Chelsea are up there as well and as ever the championship contenders will need resilience - and a big squad - once their European programme begins.

As is often the case, United were able to field a stronger side than had seemed likely from Sir Alex Ferguson's prognosis the day before. With Ferdinand and O'Shea in the centre of defence and looking fine, Keane was not required at the back and was able to boss the midfield alongside Butt for an hour.

Phil Neville was the only square peg, on the right of midfield, though his defensive bias compensated for that of Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite flank. The Portuguese teenager does not do defence and does not need to on days like these, contenting himself with running his opposing full-back dizzy with step-overs and dummies that almost invite spectators to offer their marks for artistic impression.

The only surprise was that he was not involved in either of the goals, which followed free-kicks by Ryan Giggs and were snapped up by Ruud van Nistelrooy, the scourge of Charlton with a 20-minute hat-trick in what turned out to be David Beckham's final match for United at Old Trafford last May. It did not help the home side that their five absentees were all defenders.

"I thought United were going to have injury problems, but it was us," said Charlton's manager Alan Curbishley. "We had four playing their first game of the season and I've got nothing but praise for them. But against that quality of team you can't go down to 10 men." Ferguson was realistic in his assertion that "I think we had the better quality and a 2-0 victory was fair. Ronaldo was marvellous and showed a lot of courage to keep getting up." The youngster got up rather too slowly for the home crowd's taste after being fouled, but the more fair-minded among them can only have admired his skill. Teasing Radostin Kishishev into three fouls in the first five minutes and an eventual booking, he made every one of his team's four first-half scoring chances.

In the 10th minute he was left free to pick up Quinton Fortune's throw-in and lobbed across goal for Van Nistelrooy to attempt an audacious back-heel that dropped over the bar. Next Ronaldo wriggled along the by-line and cut a pass back for Giggs, whose drive would have gone in had Jonathan Fortune not blocked it. Just before the interval he moved onto Van Nistelrooy's pass and brought a diving save from Dean Kiely, who then held his fierce free-kick from a tight angle.

Charlton, with one home win since February, played the ball around prettily at times without threatening Tim Howard, whose most uncomfortable moment of the game occurred right at the start, when an alert rush from goal was necessary to prevent Euell reaching Di Canio's through pass. Euell was booked for following through, which had serious consequences later.

United were not running smoothly, but they went ahead in the 61st minute, just after Ferguson replaced Keane, who had taken a knock on the ankle, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Van Nistelrooy won a debatable free-kick 20 yards out and although Giggs's effort hit the defensive wall, Gary Neville's follow-up bounced off Butt and fell perfectly for Van Nistelrooy to shoot high into the net. The home side's fading prospects were even dimmer four minutes later when Euell slid fractionally late into Gary Neville and received a second yellow card, becoming the third Charlton player sent off in five matches this season.

Eight minutes from time, the points, never in any great doubt, were secured. Another Giggs free-kick was allowed to run to the far post for the unmarked Van Nistelrooy to continue his role as persecutor of defences the world over.

Charlton Athletic 0 Manchester United 2
Van Nistelrooy 62, 81

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 26,078