Wolves 0 Manchester United 3: Ferdinand flourishes in cameo role as new midfield general

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The Independent Football

It was not a performance that will prompt Sir Alex Ferguson to end his search for the new Roy Keane but Rio Ferdinand's metamorphosis yesterday into a commanding central midfielder may strengthen the Manchester United manager's conviction that he can allow the final two days of the transfer window to pass without additional funds from Malcolm Glazer.

United eased into the fifth round of the FA Cup on a bitterly cold evening in Wolverhampton as the Wanderers produced a performance that was the total of their ageing, Championship parts. Two goals from Kieran Richardson and one from Louis Saha brought United a fourth consecutive victory and confirmation that they are approaching their domestic chores with dutiful intent, though it was Ferdinand who offered his manager the greatest comfort.

Shorn of several midfield options Ferguson has scoured Europe in his search for a replacement this month. Yet in Ferdinand, a player whose midfield capabilities he had previously dismissed as a joke, Ferguson may have an alternative at his disposal already.

Glenn Hoddle, the Wolves manager, had portrayed his team selection as an adventurous 4-3-3 before kick off but the reality was an isolated lone striker in Carl Cort, who received scant service from a five-man midfield conspicuous only by its appalling distribution of the ball.

For his part, Ferguson must have surprised even himself by having to field Ferdinand alongside Wayne Rooney in central midfield. Only 10 days earlier, following a late cameo against non-League Burton Albion, the United manager was asked if the England international had a future in that role. "Not a chance," he replied, and though United's options have been restricted by injury, Ferdinand's selection does not indicate a vote of confidence in Darren Fletcher and Alan Smith, both of whom started on the bench.

Ferdinand justified his place with an accomplished performance against Wolves' veteran trio of Darren Anderton, Paul Ince and Mark Kennedy, who were made to look as though time had finally caught up with them all. Anderton, in particular, had a dreadful afternoon. Pedestrian and careless in possession, the former Tottenham man was spared further humiliation when he was withdrawn at the interval along with the equally poor Seol Ki-Hyeon.

Hoddle's half-time changes were both justified and successful, Colin Cameron and Mark Davies becoming integral parts of an improved home display, but by then Wolves' interest in the FA Cup was over.

United have emphasised their increased focus on domestic cup competitions in 2006 with early goals against Burton in the FA Cup third-round replay and Blackburn Rovers in the Carling Cup semi-final second leg at Old Trafford on Wednesday. That sequence continued at Molineux when, with only six minutes gone, Richardson established a lead that was never threatened.

Wolves' failure to close down a swaggering United team was evident from the opening exchanges, when Saha turned the left-back Lee Naylor too easily and delivered a low cross that Joleon Lescott deflected into the path of Richardson. With the home crowd taunting his every touch on account of a season spent on loan at West Bromwich Albion, the midfielder required no further invitation to beat Stefan Postma with ease from 18 yards.

Cort had a rare chance to equalise three minutes later when he rose between Ferdinand and Wes Brown to head Kennedy's left-wing cross a yard over Edwin van der Sar's goal and, but for a brief spell of aerial pressure that tested a United defence containing the debutant Nemanja Vidic, there was nothing to inspire Molineux. The £7.2m Serb produced a decent first start for his new club, though he will have to encounter more potent opposition than this to prove himself a worthy acquisition.

Vidic, who was booked for a cynical body-check on Kenny Miller in the second half and occasionally required the insurance policy of Ferdinand to cover his hasty runs out of position, helped seal the victory in first-half stoppage time with a long clearance that exposed a static home defence. Saha was played onside by Gabor Gyepes as the ball dropped over the top and he dispatched an emphatic finish beyond Postma before the old gold rearguard had finished looking for an offside flag to rescue their indecision.

Though a reorganised Wolves began the second half with more intent, it required only seven minutes for United's energy and penetration to pay dividends again. The busy Park Ji-Sung bustled his way past Naylor on the right and somehow managed to cut the ball back for Ruud van Nistelrooy while being pushed over the byline. The Dutch striker then produced a nonchalant chip across the penalty area and Richardson, ghosting in at the back post, headed an outstanding team goal into the bottom corner.

It was a scoreline that reflected the visitors' superiority and, though Cort and new Polish signing Tomasz Frankowski went close late, only the crossbar denied Van Nistelrooy a fourth in the 85th minute as United strolled into the fifth round.

Goals: Richardson (6) 0-1; Saha (45) 0-2; Richardson (52) 0-3.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-5-1): Postma; Edwards, Gyepes, Lescott, Naylor; Seol (Cameron, h-t), Anderton (Davies, h-t), Ince, Kennedy, Miller; Cort (Frankowski, 64). Substitutes not used: Craddock, Ganea.

Manchester United (4-1-3-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Vidic, Brown (Smith, 57), Silvestre; Ferdinand; Park, Rooney, Richardson (Evra, 65); Van Nistelrooy, Saha (Fletcher, 65). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Bardsley.

Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire)

Booked: Manchester United Vidic, Neville. Man of the match: Ferdinand.

Attendance: 28,333.