The big guns – with the exception of the unsurpassable Roy Keane – may not have been firing yesterday, but the Gunnar was. Down in The Valley Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thundered, two exceptional pieces of finishing earning an 11th victory in 12 games to carry Manchester United back to the top of the Premiership table. For Sir Alex Ferguson, in the first match since his decision to remain as manager, it was business pretty much as usual, and so it threatens to be for three more years.
Charlton, still hanging on in the top half, did their best to keep things tight, but were caught by two counter-attacks and had a goal disallowed on a marginal decision at a critical stage of the second half. Lacking real penetration, they were unable to benefit from United's unexpectedly frequent individual errors and, in particular, continuing uncertainty in defence. Although the same back-four were playing together for the 12th successive occasion, there was still no telling what would happen when the ball dropped between them and Roy Carroll, who was in goal because of Fabien Barthez's back injury. The simplest of ploys, a corner or long thrown flicked on at the near post, caused confusion.
Further forward, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs were all out of sorts to varying degrees. Beckham looked physically uncomfortable after a couple of legitimate challenges, but all four of United's England squad members are expected to report for duty today. It was just as well that Keane was in the mood, sitting in front of the defence, berating those around him, and slowly taking control of the game after Charlton's England Under-21 midfielder Scott Parker had the temerity to upstage him early on.
If there was any criticism from Ferguson it was confined, as usual, to the privacy of the dressing-room. "Charlton made it very difficult for us on a lively pitch, which made it difficult to pass the ball," he said. Much of the champions' passing was certainly awry, with Beckham and Giggs among the worst offenders. That enabled the home side to make a bright start, urged on by The Valley's largest gathering since 1977, and encouraged by Gary Neville playing a back-pass wide of his goalkeeper and a post for a corner that Carroll did not hold.
Even with Kevin Lisbie on from the start to provide extra pace, however, the column detailing Charlton shots on target remained blank for too long. United set their sights through Keane, sending his fellow Irish international Dean Kiely scrambling across goal, then went ahead in the 33rd minute. The goal took everyone by surprise, not least Aston Villa's Graham Taylor, Radio 5 Live's summariser at the match, who was reminiscing about his playing days as Keane, deep in his own half, played a wonderful 60-yard diagonal pass into the path of the little Norwegian; Solskjaer took it down with one touch and finished perfectly with a controlled low shot into the far corner of the net. The Charlton defence in general and Mark Fish in particular, were caught out as badly as the Villa manager.
When a genuine chance finally came their way, six minutes into the second half, neither the method nor the outcome was a surprise: Fish nodded on a corner by Chris Bart-Williams, but Jason Euell at the far post headed wide. Another corner, unnecessarily conceded by Mikael Silvestre, brought a defining moment as Graham Stuart turned in a shot by Jorge Costa; either he or Euell, who may not have been interfering with play, was flagged offside.
Soon after the hour Ferguson began to mix and match in intimidating fashion, sending on first Juan Sebastian Veron, then his new Uruguayan Diego Forlan. Charlton, with a rather less daunting bench to choose from, opted for the physical presence of Matt Svensson, but before he had launched himself at anyone a second goal arrived. With a lot of home players in an advanced position, Lisbie was guilty of a poor cross that Keane brought down to lead a telling break; he found Giggs and as Charlton appealed in vain for a push, Kiely beat out the Welshman's shot and Solskjaer, apparently covered by Chris Powell, somehow squeezed the ball back into the net for his 15th goal of the season.
"We know what's required of us now and for the next few years," said Solskjaer of Ferguson's new commitment to the club, the manager adding: "There's one or two small details, but nothing important and it [the contract] could be done in the week."
With 15 United players on international duty and no FA Cup tie to prepare for next weekend, there will little else to occupy him until the Champions' League resumes in 10 days' time. That, more than a championship defence, will be the true test – especially of the defence.
Goals: Solskjaer (33) 0-1; Solskjaer (74) 0-2.
Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Kiely 5; Young 7, Fish 5, Jorge Costa 7, Powell 5; Robinson 6, Parker 7, Bart-Williams 6, Stuart 4 (Svensson 5, 72); Lisbie 5 (Konchesky, 81), Euell 5 (Johansson, 81). Substitutes not used: Ilic (gk), Fortune.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll 4; P Neville 5, Blanc 4, G Neville 4, Silvestre 4; Beckham 4, Keane 9, Scholes 5, Giggs 6 (Butt, 88); Van Nistelrooy 5 (Veron 5, 66), Solskjaer 8 (Forlan, 77). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Irwin.
Referee: A Wiley (Burntwood) 6.
Bookings: Manchester Utd: P Neville.
Man of the match: Keane.
Attendance: 26,475.Reuse content