So much for the most competitive league in the world. If the Trades Description Act could be invoked for football, this travesty of a match would be a fair subject for investigation. Not that United could be blamed. It was Ipswich's duty to administer retribution for Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to field a virtual reality XI. But, with their superiority comfortably asserted by half-time and emphatically confirmed with two goals in the last three minutes, United presented an eloquent defence of their arrogance, pragmatism, call it what you will.
To be fair, fatigue was a valid excuse for Ipswich, who had played a draining Uefa Cup tie 48 hours before. Ferguson doubtless took that into account in resting nine first-team regulars, but long before the end of this embarrassment Ipswich were reduced to a shadow of the fluent side which made such an impact last season.
With a pivotal Champions' League meeting against Deportivo La Coruña on Tuesday, Sir Alex had warned in the programme of "one or two changes". No one expected a ransacking. "I can't count, can I?" the United manager said afterwards. Of the team which began against Newcastle, only two Roy Keane and Fabien Barthez remained. Giggs, Beckham, Irwin, Blanc and Brown disappeared without trace; Veron, Gary Neville, Scholes and Van Nistelrooy constituted a bench worth more than the current readings on the FTSE index.
David May returned for his second start in two seasons the other was in the final, meaningless game of last season and was paired with Ronny Johnsen, a gamble for a side which began the day with the third worst defensive record in the Premier League. "There's no point in having a good squad if you don't trust them," Ferguson added.
George Burley, the Ipswich manager, must have wondered if he had shown up for an Avon Combination fixture. The punters with a ticket in their pocket for the Theatre of Dreams and a hole in their bank balance should have demanded a return on their £35. No one would have accepted such a reduced cast list in the West End.
Twenty minutes later, with United 2-0 up and strolling, Burley and a vociferous contingent of Ipswich fans were the only ones with cause for complaint. If United were impostors, so were Ipswich. Perhaps, like the rest of Old Trafford, they found United's teamsheet at best mildly deflating, at worse an insult. Having begun promisingly, keeping possession while United introduced themselves to each other, Ipswich went behind to a simple header by Ronny Johnsen from a corner after 12 minutes.
United, their early nerves calmed, slipped into forward gear and when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, making his first start of the season, tucked home the second after Andy Cole's long-range shot had been parried by Matteo Sereni, the old spectres of Ipswich's 9-0 thrashing six years ago returned. "We want 10," sang Old Trafford. For a moment, as Matt Holland tried to rouse his team from their slumbers, it seemed a genuine possibility. Had Sereni not stretched high to his left to flick over a 25-yard drive by Quinton Fortune, the game would have been anaesthetised long before half-time.
Instead, United chose consolidation over adventure and Ipswich found time to breathe. Even Finidi George, otherwise worse than anonymous, roused himself long enough to deliver a telling cross which Marcus Stewart flicked over five minutes before half-time. But if Ferguson's teacup throwing days are behind him, the pastime might well have been revived by another Scottish manager in the visitors' dressing-room.
Burley's response was to bring on Martijn Reuser and Jamie Clapham for Chris Makin and the ineffective George. United shuffled through their star-studded list of reserves and sent on Paul Scholes, whose arrival in the 65th minute should have coincided with United's third. But Cole, presented with the clearest of headers six yards out from Fortune'scross, allowed Sereni enough time to scramble the ball clear.
Of Ipswich's attacking verve, little was visible. Where last season Ipswich passed and moved the ball through the midfield, here they resorted to the long ball straight on to the waiting heads of May and Johnsen. And so Old Trafford went quietly to sleep as United contentedly kept their lead and Ipswich laboured to limit the damage. The United directors' box began to empty. Even the Tractor Boy choir lost heart.
To the biggest cheer of the half, Juan Sebastian Veron replaced Keane and with one leisurely swing of his right boot released Fortune down the right. Cole should have done better with the cross. Stewart's diving header at last forced Barthez into action, but three minutes before the end Cole made up for his earlier miss with a right-foot shot and Solskjaer added the fourth on the whistle. Both managers agreed it was not a 4-0 sort of game, but it was difficult to know which one was kidding himself the most.
"We knew United would make changes," Burley said, "but we knew the players they brought in would be internationals. That wasn't a 4-0 game." For Ferguson it was a "good day for us". Proclaimers of the Premier League's inherent quality might beg to differ.
Manchester United 4 Ipswich Town 0
Johnsen 13, Solskjaer 20, 90, Cole 90
Half-time: 2-0 Attendance: 67,551Reuse content