Ferguson's stylists rise to his occasion

Manchester United 2 - Lyon 1
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The Independent Online

As a result it did not quite match Brian Horton's 1,000th game as a manager ­ a four-goal thrashing of Mansfield by Macclesfield in the LDV Vans Trophy ­ but as a performance it would be hard to think of Manchester United bettering the one they gave to mark their manager's millennium.

As a result it did not quite match Brian Horton's 1,000th game as a manager ­ a four-goal thrashing of Mansfield by Macclesfield in the LDV Vans Trophy ­ but as a performance it would be hard to think of Manchester United bettering the one they gave to mark their manager's millennium.

Sir Matt Busby's 1,000th match as United's manager came at a time when the club was building itself up for a final, successful lunge for the European Cup.

Watching Manchester United celebrate Sir Alex Ferguson's landmark with a superlative display against a technically accomplished Lyon, it was possible to imagine them in Istanbul in May competing for another.

Ferguson thought both teams might travel a very long way in this competition. "There was a magnificent quality to the match," he reflected. "All day I'd been a bit nervy knowing how these things can fall apart. But I said to myself that it was the previous 999 that had got me here."

Last night's victory, his 564th, was fittingly sealed by two of Ferguson's outstanding performers in the Champions' League; Gary Neville, who has played more games in the competition than any Englishman, and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has scored more times in Europe than any United player.

It ensured that next month's trip to Istanbul to face Fenerbahce is now purely to determine whether Manchester United finish first or second in Group D.

Even in his 1,000th match there was still room for Ferguson to show his capacity to innovate, employing Alan Smith as a central midfielder. He thought the Lyon centre would be vulnerable to counter-attacks and for half an hour, playing off Cristiano Ronaldo, the Yorkshireman proved the gamble correct.

Amid all the exemplary judgements, no man, Ferguson included, could have flourished for 1,000 games at Manchester United without a dash of luck. After 18 minutes, Ferguson's assistant, Carlos Queiroz, was on the touchline to organise Gary Neville's substitution.

With a wave of his hand, Neville, suffering from a virus, but a man who has never been afraid to tell management where to go, indicated that he was not ready to come off. Within half a minute he had scored, driving Anthony Reveillere's clearance back into the Lyon net. It was only Neville's seventh goal in a long career at his only club and his second in the Champions' League.

Wes Brown was duly ordered to put his tracksuit top back on, at least until half time.

Five minutes before the interval, Roy Carroll would have wanted to do the same. His was an agonising error; somehow allowing a speculative, long-distance shot from Mahamadou Diarra to squirm through his gloves.

Even after 18 years at Old Trafford, Ferguson did not look like a man taking matters philosophically. He chewed his gum with a furious intensity.

Nevertheless, United were not jolted out of their rhythm. Wayne Rooney might have scored three times in the first hour; driving one shot firmly on to the base of Nicolas Puydebois' post, hammering another viciously wide and then, just before Van Nistelrooy pounced, he saw Lamine Diatta clear off his line.

Rooney's vision for a cross that the Dutchman chipped over Puydebois and which ran agonisingly close to the post was wonderfully instinctive.

Instinctive is the single best adjective that sums up Van Nistelrooy. Ferguson has remarked that he is the most natural striker he has worked with as a manager, which given the range of alternatives, is some compliment.

There was nothing complicated or flash about his goal; it was simply his unerring ability to pick the right spot to meet an uncannily fine cross from Rio Ferdinand and bury it. It was his 46th goal in 47 Champions' League matches, a statistic that is almost as hard to credit as 1,000 matches at the helm of Manchester United.

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Carroll; G Neville (Brown, h-t), Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Smith, Keane (Fortune, 89), Scholes, Ronaldo; Rooney, Van Nistelrooy (Fletcher, 72). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Bellion, Djemba-Djemba, O'Shea.

Lyon: (4-5-1) Puydebois; Reveilliere, Diatta, Cris, Berthod; Govou (Wiltord, 60), Essien, Diarra, Juninho, Frau (Bergougnoux, 72); Nilmar (Malouda, 72). Substitutes not used: Jaccard (gk), Clement, Gomez, Hima.

Referee: K Nielsen (Denmark).

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