Gary Neville scores again for brisk United

Manchester United 2 Charlton Athletic 0
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The Independent Football

Old Trafford still glittered in the night air but it was a palace of a dispossessed aristocracy. However good this victory was, and at times, it was hugely impressive, what would have enraged Sir Alex Ferguson was how irrelevant it all appeared. The stadium may have held double the population of Monaco but this would have been scant consolation.

Much as the Manchester United manager affects to despise journalists, he would not have wanted the press box to be half empty last night, he would not have wanted to have had third billing in Radio Five's list of the day's football highlights, behind the Champions' League and Hull's attempt to win promotion from the Third Division. The limelight was on the Côte d'Azur and everybody knew it.

Nevertheless, this was a fine victory, which might on another evening have been even more comprehensive. It went a long way to ending the lovely fantasy of Charlton appearing in the Champions' League and to ensuring that when Chelsea come to Manchester on 8 May, they will be playing for the right to avoid a qualifier somewhere in eastern Europe.

That in reality is all the "race for second" is all about. Even the much talked of security scare was hard to observe at a ground where access to players is as difficult to achieve an audience with a dictator.

They may have silently wished to be elsewhere but United's players began with a verve that was entirely absent in their recent listless displays against Leicester and Portsmouth. Ferguson fielded no fewer than three specialist strikers and at times the aggression of Manchester United's play matched that of the tactics.

But for a fluffed header from Wes Brown and a controlled interception from Hermann Hreidarsson when Louis Saha appeared clear on goal, Manchester United might have taken the lead long before they did. When they did strike, it was through one of those beautifully-worked moves which have too seldom been a feature of this disjointed campaign.

A long, floated ball from Gary Neville found David Bellion whose pace frankly terrified Charlton's defence; they began a full-scale retreat. One Parisian slipped through another and Saha's shot ensured Manchester United took the lead their approach had deserved.

This was Saha's seventh goal in nine games. "I'm looking forward to the partnership with van Nistelrooy sharpening up ," Ferguson said, "because they have only played five games together between them. This is something we will have to look at in pre-season."

Charlton's progress has been based on the best away record outside the rarified Premiership inhabited by Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United and, despite the fact that in his 13 years at The Valley their manager, Alan Curbishley, has never tasted victory at Old Trafford, they began in the measured tones of the seriously un-overawed, while in Claus Jensen Charlton possessed perhaps the outstanding player of the evening.

Jensen's trouble was that overall there was too little support. Charlton may have been confident in the bottom two-thirds of the pitch but in the Manchester United area, they were a timid, anonymous team.

However, Ferguson described Curbishley's men as the "best Charlton side to have come to Old Trafford" in his years there, but Curbishley himself was more critical: "We had as much ball precentage-wise as we have had at any time at Old Trafford, but frankly we frittered it away."

The most they achieved in the first hour was a booking for Steve Konchesky as he threw himself theatrically over Gary Neville's legs.

It was no surprise that Curbishley should have introduced Jason Euell for the insipid Jonatan Johansson, although by the time Sean Bartlett headed against the United post the game was as good as lost. It should also be pointed out that but for a combination of post and Kiely's gloves, Ruud van Nistelrooy would have put Manchester United three up.

Given that he had found the net in the last game at Old Trafford perhaps not too many eyebrows should have been raised by the fact that it was Gary Neville who scored Manchester United's second that erased any question mark hovering over the fixture. But it was the manner in which the full-back picked up Saha's pass and sprinted into the area before driving a low shot into the right-hand corner of Kiely's net which would have really amazed onlookers. Before the game against Leicester, the elder Neville had scored five times in a dozen years at Manchester United, now he had two in less than a fortnight.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard 5; G Neville 7, Brown 5, Silvestre 7, P Neville 6; Fletcher 6 (Ronaldo 4, 82), Butt 5 (Keane 5, 73), Djemba-Djemba 6, Bellion 6; Saha 8 (Giggs 5, 64), Van Nistelrooy 6. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), O'Shea.

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Kiely 6; Young 5, Fortune 6, Hreidarsson 5, Powell 6 (Perry 4, 82); Stuart 4 (Di Canio 5, 73), Holland 6, Jensen 7, Konchesky 4; Johansson 3 (Euell 5, 62), Bartlett 6. Substitutes not used: Royce (gk), Cole.

Referee: S Dunn 6 (Bristol).