Ferguson fields the team of dreams

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The Independent Online

At least Sir Alex and his boys are taking one domestic competition with a discernible degree of seriousness. At the end of the week in which they gave up one third of their treble without a fight, in favour of some South American jaunt that might as well include a stop-off at Disneyworld to play in the Mickey Mouse Cup, mighty Manchester United not only deigned to contest a Premiership fixture but turned out a full-strength team for it. They even emerged with three points from it.

At least Sir Alex and his boys are taking one domestic competition with a discernible degree of seriousness. At the end of the week in which they gave up one third of their treble without a fight, in favour of some South American jaunt that might as well include a stop-off at Disneyworld to play in the Mickey Mouse Cup, mighty Manchester United not only deigned to contest a Premiership fixture but turned out a full-strength team for it. They even emerged with three points from it.

Having made sure of their Champions' League progress in Zagreb on Wednesday, United regained winning momentum on the domestic front at Old Trafford yesterday, though it took them half-an-hour to shake the jet lag from their legs. Ultimately, goals from Paul Scholes and Andy Cole before the break and a third by Roy Keane midway through the second half proved more than sufficient to see off an Aston Villa side who had enough chances to take the scalp of the treble-winners for the second time in a month.

It was a rather different United side that Villa beat by the same score in the Worthington Cup three weeks ago. Indeed, it would have been entirely different if Mark Bosnich were not Sir Alex's No 1 goalkeeping choice by the default of no better alternative being available. Though Bosnich emerged yesterday with United's first clean sheet from a Premiership match since 14 August, it would be no great surprise to find an Old Trafford contract among the books Peter Schmeichel will be signing at the Trafford Centre on Tuesday.

"We got a scoreline better than our performance," Sir Alex Ferguson conceded. "For most of the game I thought Aston Villa were the better side."

United were certainly subdued in the opening stages against a Villa side sparked to attacking life by the ubiquitous Benito Carbone. A nominal striking partner for Dion Dublin, the roving little Italian very nearly opened the scoring with just six minutes on the clock. Catching the ponderous Mikaël Silvestre in possession some 25 yards from goal, he not only relieved him of the ball but despatched a curling right-foot shot that clipped the outside of Bosnich's left-hand post.

Dublin and George Boateng also fired narrowly wide as United laboured to get a midfield foothold and Villa went for the jugular. It took United 18 minutes to string together their first move of any note, though they almost found a route directly to the Villa goal. It required a desperate clearance by Gareth Barry to thwart Scholes after Cole headed David Beckham's right-wing cross straight into the path of the Salford sniffer.

A minute later, the ball was in the back of United's net. Much to the relief of their manager, however, Alan Wilkie signalled a free-kick in their favour rather than a goal against them. Carbone had raced into an offside position before Ian Taylor slipped the ball through the home guard for Dublin to beat Bosnich. Referees have not exactly been Gregory's cup of Earl Grey in recent weeks and he was on the touchline in a flash, pointing an index finger accusingly towards the man in black from Chester-le-Street.

By half-time, though, the Villa manager had reason to direct his anger at the men within his dressing room. Six times in the 15-minute spell before the break United clipped their opponents from the wings and two of the clear chances they created were duly converted. First, on the half-hour mark, Beckham chipped the ball in from the right at the perfect height for Scholes to flick it past the Villa goalkeeper, David James. Then, in first half injury-time, Beckham cut in from the same flank and pulled the ball back for Cole to hit the target with a rifling right-foot shot.

Gregory's boys were clearly fired up to make amends after the interval. Twice Carbone found himself with only Bosnich to beat, but twice the fates conspired against him. On the first occasion he was denied by Jaap Stam's text-book covering tackle. On the second, Silvestre hooked his shot off the line.

There was no way back for Villa after United struck again, in the 65th minute. Beckham delivered the cross from the right, Scholes laid the ball back on the edge of the Villa box, and Keane's right foot applied the finishing touch to a domestic job ultimately well done.

Sir Alex even had some good news on the international front, depending on which side of Hadrian's defensive wall you happen to stand. Scholes will not be undergoing a hernia operation until the second phase of the Champions' League is completed in December, leaving him clear to take part in the Euro 2000 play-offs. "He'll be available to play - if he's got the conscience to go and hurt his manager," Sir Alex said, with a tartan twinkle in his eye.

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