Smith strike lives up to fans' great expectations

Manchester United 2 - Norwich City 1
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The Independent Online

If Manchester United's directors dared to rate Sir Alex Ferguson's recent acquisitions, they would not be in the gold medal class. Even silver might be pushing it which, given the man's Matthew Pinsent-like need for first place, is a grievous hurt.

If Manchester United's directors dared to rate Sir Alex Ferguson's recent acquisitions, they would not be in the gold medal class. Even silver might be pushing it which, given the man's Matthew Pinsent-like need for first place, is a grievous hurt.

True, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tim Howard have been successes (albeit qualified at times), but Eric Djemba-Djemba, David Bellion and Kleberson could have left Old Trafford last season and only the bank manager would have noticed. And as for Diego Forlan, the less said the better. At times the reserves could have been renamed as the rejects.

So it was with some trepidation that the Theatre of Dreams welcomed Alan Smith and Liam Miller for their home Premiership debuts. They may have carried reputations before them but so did last season's crop and, long before that, Gary Birtles and Peter Davenport did too. Smith and Miller may confound first impressions, but the other two froze in the face of expectation.

You could understand, therefore, Ferguson's bonhomie when he discussed Smith's spectacular 50th-minute strike that ultimately won this match. "A stupendous goal," the manager beamed. And then he made a near ultimate comparison for modern United supporters in mentioning Mark Hughes. Not quite the insuperable superlative that is "Eric Cantona", but a weighty compliment nonetheless.

While one is always wary of contemporary views - the Leeds United programme once, laughably, held up Harry Kewell to George Best - you could see where he was coming from. Hughes was a scorer of great goals rather than a great scorer and Smith, hardly prolific at Leeds, had the mind wandering back to the 90s when he set up the ball with a thrust of his chest and then crashed it past Robert Green with a vicious volley over his shoulder.

With Miller fitting quietly but efficiently into a midfield that comprehensively outplayed their opponents, it was a relatively easy introduction to Old Trafford for both debutants, after Bellion, no less, had opened the scoring. Norwich hit the bar through David Bentley and had half-chances after Paul McVeigh had pulled a goal back, but you found yourself remembering this ground last August when Wolverhampton Wanderers were beginning their plummet back to the First Division, and the comparison seemed appropriate.

"We have to keep the ball, retain it for long periods, be ruthless in front of goal and keep clean sheets at the back," their manager, Nigel Worthington, said. "That's three big things and it's not always easy when you are playing the quality that's in the Premiership. But that's what we need to achieve and we will."

With Newcastle United and Arsenal to play this week they will need to, and you fear the worst for a team who are attractive to watch and work hard, but rely too much on Darren Huckerby and Bentley.

They could be bottom of the Premiership by Saturday night while United, for all their injuries, should be through to the Champions' League proper by then. The search for gold goes on.

Goals: Bellion (33) 1-0; Smith (49) 2-0; McVeigh (74) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; G Neville (P Neville, 72), Keane, Silvestre, O'Shea; Miller, Djemba-Djemba, Miller (Ronaldo, 85), Giggs; Scholes, Bellion (Richardson, 72), Smith. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Eagles.

Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Helveg, Fleming, Charlton, Drury; Bentley (McKenzie, 76), Francis, Holt, Jonson (McVeigh, 45); Huckerby, Svensson (Doherty, 69). Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), Edworthy.

Booked: Norwich: Helveg.

Referee: N Barry (N Lincs).

Man of the Match: Smith

Attendance: 67, 812

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