United quick to enforce home rule

Champions carry on where they left off last season as Johnsen and Cole strike down Newcastle
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The Independent Online

The challengers may have spent millions in a game of summer catch-up, but the topless towers of Old Trafford gave off an aura offinancial and footballing impregnability yesterday.

The challengers may have spent millions in a game of summer catch-up, but the topless towers of Old Trafford gave off an aura offinancial and footballing impregnability yesterday.

There were 67,477 here; almost double the attendance at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, virtually twice what Arsenal can expect at Highbury for tomorrow's visit of Liverpool, whose chief executive, Rick Parry, complains that United take in more than £1m more per game than they do at Anfield. On the pitch, it is still 11 against 11; off it the numbers stack up very differently.

On the field, Manchester United are still a thing of rare beauty. Yes, they will face a stiffer challenge this time, if only because they are unlikely to win with the ridiculous ease they did last season. "Some of the play in the first half was as good as it was during last season," said Sir Alex Ferguson. You have been warned.

This was their 12th straight win and as if to make a point the latest came against the last team to beat them in the Premiership. Newcastle are nobody's fools. The last time they came away from Old Trafford, one August ago, they were an unrecognisable, rudderless mess, ruined by the vanity and arrogance of Ruud Gullit. Much has changed but at the back, Newcastle's usual Achilles heel, they still looked hugely vulnerable and United will always exploit a weakness.

Bobby Robson, who claimed Newcastle had a "duty" to challenge for the title, played five defenders which showed he was under no illusions as to what to expect. And yet twice in the space of a minute - the 19th - they allowed two United defenders almost clear headers. The first, from Jaap Stam, was brilliantly tipped over by Shay Given, who from the resulting corner managed to get a hand to Ronny Johnsen's header which still flew into the corner of the net. For Johnsen, an absentee for virtually all of last season, this was a fine way to return, although he later limped off with a groin strain which will rule him out against Ipswichtomorrow.

On the hour, Nikos Dabizas managed to beat Andy Cole to David Beckham's chip but succeeded only in nodding it against his own post. Robson had abandoned the idea of three centre-backs at half-time, bringing on Kieron Dyer, omitted from the starting line-up in favour of the Argentinian Daniel Cordone, who at £500,000 for a year's loan from Racing Club looked a bargain. He also wears a pony-tail better than David Seaman.

United should certainly have scored once and possibly twice more before the interval and by the end they could have had five. The near-certainty came as Paul Scholes floated across a ball to the feet of Ryan Giggs with Warren Barton, the closest Newcastle defender, fully four yards away. Giggs, who should have been awarded a penalty when Alain Goma tripped him, struck a left-foot volley firmly against the base of the post.

Earlier, in the 28th minute, with United beginning to play seamless, silken football, Cole, who last year had put four past his old club and professed himself "gutted" at their incompetence, removed the ball from Goma like a pickpocket snaffling a wallet, rounded Given and squared for Sheringham who missed.

At Newcastle, Cole's business was purely goals and further evidence of how his all-round game has blossomed under Ferguson came 53 minutes into the game as he produced a perfect diagonal ball for David Beckham whose shot was turned away by Given, Newcastle's only contender for man of this match.

Cole still knows how to score, evidenced by the manner in which he tucked away Giggs' through-ball for United's decisive second and his ninth against his former club. Ruud van Nistelrooy is due to starttraining with United in a bid to resurrect his move, although how many games he would play inan attack this good is open toquestion.

Given's opposite number, Fabien Barthez, enjoyed a rather less taxing opening afternoon. He was greeted by a rendition of "Chanson d'Amour" by camp 70s cabaret artistes, Manhattan Transfer. Perhaps this is what passes for Gallic sophistication at Old Trafford these days but you feel Eric Cantona would never have allowed it.

There was optimism and satisfaction in the air. The Premiership pennant was paraded, Ferguson picked up his perennial manager of the year award. Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best, introduced as "The Three Legends", rather like a footballing Three Tenors'. Judging from the way they had their arms round each others' shoulders, they get on better in retirement than they ever did in the dressing-room they shared in 1972, the last time Newcastle beat United here.

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Barthez; G Neville, P Neville, Stam, Johnsen (Wallwork, 61); Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Giggs; Sheringham (Yorke, 74), Cole (Solskjaer, 74). Substitutes not used: Fortune, Van der Gouw (gk).

Newcastle United: (5-3-2) Given; Barton, Hughes, Goma (Dyer, 45), Dabizas, Marcelino; Lee (Solano, 58), Cordone, Speed; Cort, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Charvet, Domi, Harper (gk).

Referee: S J Lodge (Barnsley).

Booking: Newcastle: Goma.

Man of the match: Cole.

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