Ferguson's sympathy for Wigley

Manchester United 3 - Southampton 0
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The Independent Football

Chasing Chelsea may appear one of the more futile gestures in sport at the moment but Manchester United are plodding along, hoping the leaders will eventually come into sight weeping by the side of the road. They are not at their imperious best, but they are improving.

Chasing Chelsea may appear one of the more futile gestures in sport at the moment but Manchester United are plodding along, hoping the leaders will eventually come into sight weeping by the side of the road. They are not at their imperious best, but they are improving.

Certainly they were far too good yesterday for a Southampton side who were brimming with determination but so lacking in attacking nous they did not manage a shot on target. For 3-0, you could have read treble that if United had converted even a reasonable proportion of their opportunities.

Paul Scholes, with his fourth goal in three Premiership matches, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo managed to rise above this gross act of profligacy, but United's stellar performance came from Ryan Giggs who played with such a zest he could have been an ageing footballer looking for an improved contract. Come to think of it, he is.

As for Southampton, they have now won just one of their last 14 matches and you fear for the future of their likeable manager, Steve Wigley, who looked a lonely figure on the touchline as he watched his team being run ragged.

"The only thing I'll have on the long trip home is a lot of thoughts and disappointment," Wigley said. "Saturday night and Sunday are not the best time in my household at the moment, but come Monday morning it's my job to pick people up. The one thing I have tried to do is to keep my situation out of the debate. I don't want it to affect the players."

The United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose side have won their last seven games in all competitions, had an altogether rosier view. "You can smell that the players are going out expecting to win," he said. "They have their confidence back and they're looking forward to every game now and the training sessions have been good all week. There's a long way to go - nine points behind Chelsea is a mammoth task - but maybe things will have changed by New Year's Day."

Ferguson was happy at the end, but you suspect he was less sanguine at half-time. Perhaps it was because they were kicking off at Old Trafford at 3pm on a Saturday for the first time this season, but United were slow to warm to their task. Or rather, they were piping hot when it came to their approach play and so cold in the penalty area you suspected they had frozen solid.

Scholes had a goal-bound shot blocked painfully by Danny Higginbotham's head in the third minute, but his accuracy was the exception and Rooney, Giggs, Alan Smith and Ronaldo all wasted chances before the interval that they would normally expect to put away.

It is difficult to imagine what Wigley said to his team during the interval other than praising his resolute defenders and then counting his players to see if he had forgotten to include any strikers. But the pattern of the game was unchanged after half-time, the only exception being that instead of wasting their flowing moves, United scored.

Ronaldo shaved a post with a long-range shot and Rooney's cross after 48 minutes was about as good as it could be, with the slight problem that no one was either quick or big enough to reach it. In many ways it was thrilling stuff but attacking moves without goals become repetitive after a while, so it came as a blessed relief when Scholes finally located the net after 53 minutes.

And, after the beauty of many of their moves, it was typical of football's perverse nature that the goal should be a scrappy one. Rio Ferdinand scooped the ball back from a corner and when it returned to him after an aerial scramble, his next effort had all the hallmarks of a shot. Instead, skewing off his boot, it became a cross and Scholes headed in from five yards.

If that goal had a degree of fortune attached to it, however, there was nothing wrong with the second five minutes later. The irrepressible Giggs raced through the centre of the pitch and then primed Rooney with a pass that split the Southampton back four. The £27m teenager had one chance to strike before the tackle came in and he took it emphatically, thumping the ball into the roof of the net.

With that the floodgates were open - "After the goal went in our belief drained away," Wigley said - and although Giggs hit the bar and Ronaldo scooped over from impossibly close range, United finally made the scoreline more representative in the 87th minute. Gary Neville crossed from the right and, for once, Ronaldo kept it simple, passing into the net for his first goal of the season.

"He's promised us 12 goals this season," Ferguson said, "so hopefully that's the start."

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