After a week of embarrassing questions, Manchester United unexpectedly found South-ampton posing some of their own yesterday lunchtime, and for long periods Sir Alex Ferguson's team struggled to come up with any answers. Fortunately Louis Saha had one or two up the sleeve of his new red shirt, suggesting that however outrageous the agents' fees paid in his purchase from Fulham, he may yet prove to be worth something close to £13m.
The problems were mostly at the other end, where Rio Ferdinand's loss suddenly looked critical, with Wes Brown and Mikaël Silvestre pulled all over the place. It was just as well that Phil Neville was diligent in front of them, though Roy Keane was less influential than usual; overall United, who had failed to score in their last two League games, against Wolves and Newcastle, looked like a team in need of a winter break.
Southampton's idiosyncratic manager, Gordon Strachan, has promised himself an extended break at the end of the season and may yet start it earlier. He refused to comment on reports he will shortly make way for Alain Perron, a French coach, surely destined to be known as Reggie, who took Troyes from Fourth Division to First in his native country before being sacked by Marseille after a poor run earlier this season.
Strachan was more concerned by the performance of the match officials and in particular the decision not to give Ruud van Nistelrooy offside just before the winning goal. As the free-kick in question should have been a penalty, that particular complaint needed to be taken with a good dose of salt, but the little Scot's sense of grievance was understandable in the circumstances; which were that his side deserved a point and might have achieved their first League victory at the ground since January 1988.
Twice close to taking the lead before Saha marked his fine debut with a deflected opening goal, they fought back spiritedly from 2-0 down to equalise and before the finish were denied parity again only by one of the saves of the season from Tim Howard.
Strachan's ire had been aroused early by waking up to see the referee, Graham Barber, on Sky Sports' Soccer AM. "I saw him laughing and joking before the game," he complained. "Just let them turn up and referee."
When Mr Barber did, he apparently allowed Keane choice of ends as well as the kicking-off, which hardly improved the visitors' mood. Nor did narrowly missing two chances in the first 10 minutes. Graeme Le Saux created the first for Rory Delap with an angled pass that caught the defence dozing; Howard was sharper, saving with his legs.
Paul Scholes, playing wide on the left in Ryan Giggs' absence, then allowed himself to be dispossessed as Howard quickly threw the ball to him, Jason Dodd returning it a fraction wide of the far post as the keeper scrambled back.
Saha had endeared himself to Old Trafford from the start, dropping a little deeper than Van Nistelrooy, to excellent effect. In the first 90 seconds there was a dart forward, given offside, then some much-appreciated foraging back and a deft touch or two as United moved forward. In the 13th minute his clever chip was only just too far ahead of Van Nistelrooy and five minutes later came the first of the day's offerings for the Dubious Goals Committee.
Barber awarded a free-kick for a hand on Cristiano Ronaldo's shoulder, and after the defensive wall had been persuaded to retreat 10 yards rather than six, one of the bricks in it, Kevin Phillips, was responsible for a heavy deflection to Saha's left-footer, leaving his goalkeeper flat of foot.
Even after that there was another warning for United when Brown and Silvestre, looking more uncomfortable than Southampton's second-string defenders Fitz Hall and Danny Higginbotham, allowed Brett Ormerod a dangerous header. So it was hard on the visitors to fall two behind as they did in the 37th minute to the best-worked goal of the game. Saha was again involved, twice this time; first he chested the ball down for Keane, then hit an instinctive shot that Antti Niemi only parried, Scholes swooping on to the rebound.
Phillips, short of goals this season, then found the confidence to put his undoubted shooting ability on display, and transformed the pattern with goals either side of half-time. His first was another case for the DGC, but he deserved to keep it despite Ormerod's deflection off a thigh along the way.
The visitors having resumed the second half just as brightly, there was no doubting the scorer's identity in the 53rd minute as Phillips picked up a square pass from Fabrice Fernandes and doubled his Premiership total for the season with the defence again backing off.
Ormerod might even have put his side ahead. Instead they went behind again, to Strachan's fury. The linesman's flag indicated hand ball by Ferdandes, wrongly declaring it to be outside the penalty area. Van Nistelrooy loitered in an offside position as the free-kick was swung over and, when it was not cleared, nudged in his 99th United goal off Dodd's leg. "It's offside, there's no other rule," Strachan insisted. "How's it any different at a set-play?"
An equaliser to reward late pressure might have appeased him but it was not to be. Howard was villain and hero in the same move eight minutes from time, missing a corner that Marian Pahars returned into the middle for Higginbotham to see his overhead kick brilliantly turned on to the bar by the keeper. Next minute, substitute James Beattie shrugged off Silvestre but Phillips could not slide in to complete his hat-trick.
They finished with four strikers in a line but when Howard dropped Darren Kenton's cross he got away with it, leaving another record crowd to acknowledge that their team had done little more than that in returning to the top of the table.
Manchester United 3 Southampton 2
Saha 18, Scholes 37, Van Nistelrooy 61; Phillips 38, 53
Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 67,758Reuse content