The one thing you cannot accuse Sir Alex Ferguson of is taking his reviews too seriously. Criticised for making too many changes against Fulham eight days ago, he made even more against Leeds on Tuesday and tinkered again yesterday - and for what result? As many wins as the fingers he would no doubt like to brandish at his detractors.
Yesterday it was Portsmouth's turn to experience the Ferguson effect that rarely seems to go wrong even when logic would suggest otherwise. For the vast majority of the game Manchester United were just as lethargic and sloppy as they had been against Fulham but this time they walked off with the points and a flattering scoreline.
Yet it could have gone wrong and still might have done but for the appearance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Roy Keane as substitutes with 15 minutes to go. Until then United were hanging on unconvincingly to a 1-0 lead secured by Diego Forlan's third goal in as many matches, but with their arrival was like the appearance of the cavalry on a ridge. A goal apiece and suddenly the afternoon had all the appearance of an easy stroll.
Ferguson had come under fire for fiddling before his team burned against Fulham and, on cue, he blasted back in his programme notes. "Some critics have seized on the changes I made as the reason for our muted display, but my view is that players good enough to be in our squad are good enough to play."
True to his word, he began with the central midfield of Nicky Butt and Eric Djemba- Djemba that had been shredded by Fulham, and the result was another disjointed start. Poor passing was compounded by worse option taking and it was 24 minutes before they had an attack of note, Gary Neville's header forcing Shaka Hislop into a save.
Ruud van Nistelrooy heralded an improvement with a glorious piece of control on his chest that culminated with a volley against the bar and the Dutchman should have put United ahead when Ryan Giggs split the Pompey defence. His shot was so high it rivalled David Beckham's penalty against Turkey.
With Van Nistelrooy mixing the sublime with the wasteful it was left to United's other striker - the one in form - to make the breakthrough after 37 minutes. Neville crossed from the right, Giggs headed down and Forlanshot low into the corner.
Portsmouth's failing in the first half had been lack of ambition and attacks fizzled out for lack of numbers. Remedying that, they were rewarded with two efforts that could have yielded an equaliser, the first, a free header at the far post after 49 minutes that Boris Zivkovic should have done more with, and the second a chance for Berger to locate the free Teddy Sheringham that he miserably failed to take.
The reverse side to this adventure was the space it left at the rear and United almost exploited it after 63 minutes. Hislop was drawn to a through ball and the Pompey goal was unprotected when Darren Fletcher crossed from the right edge of the area. Nicky Butt's header went lamely wide.
Enter Ronaldo and Keane and exit Pompey's chance. Giggs, who was in exhilarating form all afternoon, was tripped wide on the left after 80 minutes and Ronaldo fired in a low drive that may have begun as a cross but soon became something far more ambitious as is skidded through the area. Too late Hislop realised the danger and the ball bounced into the far corner.
Ronaldo also had a hand in United's final goal, albeit a small one, as he directed a routine throw-in in Keane's direction with eight minutes remaining. Suddenly the United captain turned and then curled a left-foot shot that had a precision an architect would have admired.
"After last Saturday it was important to get a win," Ferguson said. "It wasn't easy against a team with so many experienced players but once we got our rhythm and tempo going we played some nice football." As for his habit for changing a winning team, the man who definitely has something of the knight in him declined to add to his written comments. His smile said everything.
Manchester United 3 Portsmouth 0
Forlan 37, Ronaldo 80, Keane 82
Half-time 1-0 Attendance: 67,639
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