Manchester United 6 Southampton 1

Van the bandwagon man
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The Independent Football

Manchester United may not be firing on all cylinders but at least they have found the ignition key again. Five goals against Derby, now another six against Southampton, theirs is the ominous shape that is appearing in the rear mirrors of the Premiership front runners.

Yesterday they were short of their best – their defence looks as though it will figure in Sir Alex Ferguson's nightmares throughout his valedictory season – but the awesome power of their attack was far too potent for Southampton, who were beaten effectively in 31 seconds.

That was how long it took for Ruud van Nistelrooy to score the first of three goals that took his tally for the season to 16 and, a brief riposte from Southampton apart, that was that. It was merely a question of how many more United would get to add sauce to their Christmas dinners.

Given that both Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were given just cameo parts for the final 25 minutes, it was a an emphatic flexing of the champions' muscles. "I have to be philosophical about it," Gordon Strachan, the Southampton manager, said. "It was world-class finishing and great play."

Ferguson agreed: "Some of our football was fantastic. There were periods when we were much more like ourselves." Beckham was missing from the starting line-up for the fifth successive match, but it was from the opposite flank that United's main threat came. Paul Scholes is not a winger, but given licence to roam from the left he had a splendid match, even outshining Van Nistelrooy, and it was from him that the first goal stemmed.

Perhaps the Southampton defenders were still acquainting themselves but they melted into the crowd as Scholes' pass floated beyond them to Van Nistelrooy who did not give even the slightest hint he would miss as he drilled the ball past Paul Jones into the opposite corner. From kick-off to goal the match had lasted only 31 seconds.

Southampton had been caught cold and it was to their credit they thawed enough to threaten the home goal quickly. The United defence has gone missing in action several times this season and did so again in the sixth and 10th minutes when Paul Telfer and James Beattie found themselves beyond their markers, the first heading wide, the second shooting feebly too high.

Even at this early stage the suspicion was that Southampton would pay for these misses and they did after 33 minutes. Nicky Butt drove a volley into a defender from a corner and when the ball ballooned up Roy Keane headed back and Van Nistelrooy, no more than four yards out, forced the ball over the line.

Until this point Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been overshadowed by his striking partner but he sprang to prominence with typically dramatic style after 40 minutes. Again the Southampton defenders were negligent but you could not fault the Norwegian's accuracy or power as he met Butt's corner on the full, thumping it home.

In former seasons United would have backed off but they have a need to enhance their image with their supporters and they went after the Saints at the start of the second half as if the scoreline was against rather than for them. Within two minutes of the restart Jones was caught in possession as he advanced from his area to clearand Solskjaer should have done better with a 35-yard lob towards the empty net. A minute later Juan Sebastian Veron grazed the bar with a delicate lob.

Both chances had been rooted in mistakes and rebounds but there was nothing scruffy about United's fourth goal, which was a thing of precision. Scholes broke through the centre and then delivered an impeccable through ball into Van Nistelrooy's path, the Dutch striker completing his hat-trick with an imperious flick with the outside of his right foot.

Southampton must have felt like a grouse on the Glorious 12th but to their credit they reacted to adversity with a goal of their own, Paul Telfer crossing and Marian Pahars hooking the ball past Fabien Barthez in the 55th minute.

Beattie might have brought further embarrassment to the champions had Barthez not saved acrobatically, but the introduction of Giggs and Beckham put paid to any hints of a revival. Giggs played Keane through after 72 minutes and then Phil Neville slalomed through the visiting defence to score the most spectacular goal of the game with 12 minutes left.

"We have a mountain to climb," Ferguson said concerning United's title hopes. That mountain is getting smaller.

Manchester United 6 Southampton 1
Van Nistelrooy 1, 34, 54, Solskjaer 41, Keane 72, P Neville 78; Pahars 55
Half-time: 3-0 Attendance: 67,638