Sheringham on the rebound

Sheringham and Cole keep Manchester United on the title trail
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The Independent Online

Europe may have found out Manchester United but they remain an unfathomable mystery at domestic level. Gone was the Champions' League dithering to be replaced yesterday by a chilling ruthlessness. Southampton, crushed like irritating insects, did not stand a chance.

Europe may have found out Manchester United but they remain an unfathomable mystery at domestic level. Gone was the Champions' League dithering to be replaced yesterday by a chilling ruthlessness. Southampton, crushed like irritating insects, did not stand a chance.

True, the Saints ushered their opponents towards their plunder when Paul Jones allowed Andy Cole's shot to slither through his arms but, once United went 2-0 up, they accelerated away with an ease that mocked the notion that the Premiership is the most competitive league in the world. On this form, only Arsenal could have lived with the champions.

The statistics underline their superiority. Five times United have played at home in the Premiership this season and already they have accrued 22 goals that would have earned them maximum points but for crass carelessness against Chelsea. Teams with the resources of Southampton turn up at the Theatre of Dreams to be cannon fodder.

Teddy Sheringham was the principal beneficiary yesterday, scoring his first hat-trick for the club, a demonstration of the striking efficiency that has earned him 11 goals in 11 starts. Cole, his partner on the pitch if not off it, grabbed two for himself to take his collection to eight. Considering United were poor for 40 minutes, and were coasting for the last 15, it marked a staggering yield from their purple patch.

"It was a satisfying performance in a week where there has been a lot of disappointment about the place," Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "We needed a win like that."

Ferguson was referring to the disappointment in Brussels on Tuesday, when a 2-1 defeat by Anderlecht means they need to defeat Dynamo Kiev in 10 days time to reach the second phase of the Champions' League. But if Southampton had hopes of catching United when they were distracted by greater concerns, that plan was dashed by a blunder of their own.

The 3-3 draw in the corresponding fixture last season included one of Massimo Taibi's notorious clangers, but if the accident-prone goalkeeper has returned to Italy with the reputation as Ferguson's worst buy, his ghost has not packed all his bags and left Old Trafford completely. The match had not lasted nine minutes when Southampton's Jones suffered an almost identical embarrassment.

Last season Taibi let a powder-puff effort from Matt Le Tissier slip through him; yesterday Cole's drive had the merit of power but the Southampton keeper had plenty of time to smother it. His attempt to catch the shot as he fell to the floor was calamitous, however, and the ball trickled with mocking slowness over the line. Jones looked mortified, his only mitigation being why his defence allowed Cole the space to turn 25 yards out in the first place.

It would have taken a hard heart not to feel some sympathy for Jones, but his team-mates did not deserve to reach the interval two behind either because their patient football had earned them a number of half chances. When Fabien Barthez rode his luck after 20 minutes when he his clearance hit Jo Tessem only for the rebound to come back into his arms, however, the scare had a galvanising effect on United.

It seemed Sheringham, who missed with two headers, was heading for a frustrating afternoon but that idea collapsed with three goals in a 10-minute period either side of half-time. Having squandered those easier chances, the England striker made amends seconds before the break when he spotted Jones off his line and beat him with a chip with delicate precision. He was 20 yards out and out towards the left flank, but he could not have placed the ball better if he had put it there with his hand.

At 2-0 down, the match was over as a contest and that was confirmed within 10 minutes of the restart when Sheringham shed his early profligacy as easily as he slips out of an overcoat.

Beckham and Ryan Giggs were doing fearful damage to Southampton's flanks and almost inevitably it was from one of these sources that United's third goal stemmed. The former suddenly had too much space on the right and he delivered a pass with the precise service of a butler into Sheringham's path. This time he allied power to accuracy, beating Jones with a fierce drive.

Southampton's mental disarray was matched by their appearance for United's fourth goal after 55 minutes. A series of raids left the Saints in tatters and when Cole chested the ball into Sheringham's path he could roll it into the net from 15 yards with an almost lazy stroke of his right foot.

By now it was merely a matter of how many United would score and, although Giggs hit the bar, they had to settle for five, Cole heading in from close range at the far post from Beckham's 73rd minute corner.

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