Manchester United 2 Charlton Athletic 0: United title hopes rest with loan star Larsson

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Today marks the start of the Premiership holiday season, that conflicting period of relaxation and concentration that can determine tears or titles for the traveller come May. Charlton head for Spain and a five-day training course, so their intense manager, Alan Pardew, is fearing injury before departure; Liverpool are off to Portugal to prepare for their all-or-nothing Champions League date with Barcelona; and Wayne Rooney has been granted rest in readiness for the title assault that nine more victories should deliver to Manchester United.

Foreign fields must also be on the mind of Sir Alex Ferguson, in particular a place that holds as much influence on the destination of the championship as a fit and flourishing Rooney: the scenic coastal town of Helsingborg. The importance of its most famous export, Henrik Larsson, is growing by the game at Old Trafford, and so contact with southern Sweden is rapidly rising up the "to do" list for the United manager.

Victory for top over second from bottom appeared routine on Saturday, with yet another Old Trafford visitor seeking damage limitation and suffering accordingly as a United side without the penetration of Cristiano Ronaldo and the order of Michael Carrick secured a 17th home win in 19 games in all competitions this season. Larsson was not involved until the 62nd minute, but his contribution illustrated why United will surely attempt to extend the 35-year-old's 10-week loan from Helsingborg.

With the exception of a sublime show of control and near miss reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp in his pomp, Rooney was exasperated for those 62 minutes against Charlton and Louis Saha toiled badly on his first start since on New Year's Day. The French international requires an extended run to recapture his best form and, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rolled out to roll back the years only on occasion and Alan Smith left at Crewe in October, the need for Larsson for the run-in is self-evident.

As of course it is to Ferguson. Each Friday a valiant Swedish journalist attempts to coax the latest on the Larsson arrangement from the United manager and receives the same stock answer. "I think Helsingborg will want him back and I don't want to be rude enough to take it further unless they give us any encouragement," was Ferguson's latest offering. In other words: "Of course we're working on it and we'll announce any breakthrough as and when I see fit."

Only with their finest brain alongside the finest natural talent on display could United dispel the suspicion that Charlton would sneak an equaliser to Park Ji Sung's opportunist 23rd-minute header, the South Korean leaping above Ben Thatcher to steer home a cross from the excellent Patrice Evra. Only with Larsson did United witness the best of Rooney, and when the pair combined eight minutes from time the resilience in the Charlton rearguard evaporated. Scott Carson blocked Rooney's shot, but he was powerless to deal with the header from Darren Fletcher that followed from the striker's instinctive cross.

Afterwards Pardew bore the regret of a manager who wished he had arrived a month earlier but who, despite the chances of survival ticking away, had seen enough against Chelsea and United to believe in escape. "We'll go away and work hard this week, so much so that I fear we might lose someone to injury," said the Charlton manager. "But our spirit is growing and with Darren [Bent] coming back we will have the cutting edge we need. The situation may look cut and dried at the bottom but it never is."

For Ferguson, who could be sitting on a 12-point lead by the time Chelsea next play in the Premiership, the future is more clear-cut. He said: "We have six tough away matches left, two big ones against Liverpool and Chelsea, but you cannot say one match is harder than another. Our destiny lies in those away matches."

And the benevolence of Helsingborg.

Goals: Park (23) 1-0; Fletcher (82) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park, Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs (Larsson, 62); Rooney, Saha (Richardson, 80). Substitutes not used: Brown, Silvestre, Heaton (gk).

Charlton Athletic (4-1-4-1): Carson; Sankofa, Bougherra, Diawara, Thatcher; Song; Rommedahl, Faye (Zhi, 39), Holland (Hughes, 72), Ambrose (Lisbie, 72); Bent. Substitutes not used: Hasselbaink, Randolph (gk).

Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).

Booked: Charlton Athletic Diawara.

Man of the match: Evra.

Attendance: 75,883.