Van Nistelrooy double inspires United revival

Manchester United 3 Boavista 0
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In Europe at least what Sir Alex Ferguson calls his "rocking ship" is sailing in relatively untroubled waters and this highly-efficient victory ensured Manchester United can put the Champions' League to bed, knowing they will be top of Group A when the tournament resumes in February.

Then they will face Nantes, without so much as a goal, let alone a win, and whose main concern is avoiding relegation from the French First Division. "The main thing is that Bayern Munich have to play Boavista twice and they could eat each other up," said the United manager, whose high road to the final in Glasgow is still open, though it will be blocked by better teams than Boavista.

Some will say that it proves that like a wounded beast, United can still lash out, but in reality this was a wonderfully-controlled performance, inspired by Roy Keane and settled by two strikes from Ruud van Nistelrooy and one from Laurent Blanc.

The match opened with Ferguson making both a calculated gamble and an admission of failure, dropping David Beckham to the bench and reverting to the 4-4-2 formation that has underpinned so much success at Old Trafford. In a month when he is likely to be awarded the title of BBC Sports Personality of the Year, England's captain paid the penalty for a string of desultory performances for the club that pays his considerable wages. "It has been a long season for David and it has taken its toll," admitted Ferguson.

"He has sometimes been troubled by a back injury and we have had to address that."

His absence deprived Manchester United of the width they normally exploit so well and they badly missed his free-kicks, but the presence of Keane, freed from his instructions to shackle himself to the back four, and Juan Sebastian Veron meant United did not lack for desire.

They were far more comfortable in a familiar formation although Dwight Yorke, who has started just three league matches this season, looked ring-rusty and lost in the box. However, as he proved when setting up the final goal, his link play could still dazzle.

Fortunately for Ferguson's ambitions, Van Nistelrooy remains a thoroughbred in the penalty area. His opening goal was the final product of a move which demonstrated that however battered United may be, they are still capable of beautiful movement.

It began when Phil Neville wrested the ball from Erwin Sanchez on the right, received a return pass from Veron, and then, almost on the byline, clipped in a low cross which the Dutchman side-footed home from close range.

TV replays indicated it should have been ruled offside. It, nevertheless, succeeded in settling United nerves in what should have been a routine Champions' League fixture that had become extraordinary due to the worst set of Premiership results their manager has known. As if in recognition of this, the usually restrained atmosphere at Old Trafford crackled with passion.

Naturally, the spotlight shone fiercely on Fabien Barthez, who was twice tested in the opening seven minutes of a match in which Boavista, who have yet to win away in the Champions' League, proved they would not be afraid to attack. Duda, running at the United back-four with pace, saw his shot well blocked while moments later Armando Petit produced a fierce drive from 30 yards which the Frenchman palmed over the bar.

However, the United defence still had a fragile look about it and will have to do without Wes Brown for two months after Ferguson confirmed the centre-half had sustained damage to his medial knee ligaments in training. "The important thing is that we made no mistakes," he said. "You cannot fault the defence as a unit but there can be no excuses for some of the errors we have made."

Blanc's free-header had made the game safe for United but it was Van Nistelrooy's second three minutes after the hour mark that demonstrated they could still dismiss teams in their own arena. Yorke, breaking from deep in his own midfield, drilled a pass to Van Nistelrooy, who, on the left edge of the penalty area, picked his spot perfectly for his sixth Champions' League goal.

Whatever else has been said about him, Blanc remains a threat in the opposition's penalty area. In the 54th minute he rose, completely unchallenged, to head Veron's expertly-taken corner past Ricardo. His only previous goal for United had come in the remarkable recovery at White Hart Lane, where a three-goal deficit had been overturned in a game which demonstrated this club's remarkable powers of recovery.

Something similar ­ "a stupendous run of form" in Ferguson's words ­ over the course of a season rather than 45 minutes, is required for Manchester United to retain their title and recapture the European Cup. This, however, was a significant step for a team in the early stages of rehabilitation.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Barthez; P Neville, Blanc, G Neville (O'Shea, 77), Silvestre; Veron, Keane, Scholes (Fortune, 85), Butt; Yorke, Van Nistelrooy (Solskjaer, 88). Substitutes not used: Beckham, Chadwick, Wallwork, Carroll (gk).

Boavista (4-3-3): Ricardo; Frechaut, Paulo Turra, Pedro Emmanuel, Erivan; Petit, Goulart, Sanchez (Pedro Santos, 69); Jorge Silva (Martelinho, 61), Silva (Marcio Santos, 58), Duda. Substitutes not used: Rui Oscar, Mario Loja, Glauber, Andem (gk).

Referee: A Lopez Nieto (Spain).