Hungry United devour Keegan's pretenders

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Manchester United 4 Newcastle United 0

Cantona 25, Butt 30 Att: 73,214

Beckham 86

Keane 88 Half-time: 2-0

As a pre-season appetiser the Charity Shield is usually about as satisfying as a badly cooked takeaway. Yesterday's encounter between the Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle was so different it left you salivating at the prospect of the season to come.

There was lightning in the air, fireworks on the pitch and a match rich in character and quality. If the rest of the campaign is like this we'll all be on our knees, exhausted, by March.

Newcastle would certainly be on theirs. They were swept aside by a Manchester United team which showed, to Alex Ferguson's immense satisfaction, that they are still "hungry" for success. At the centre, as ever, was Eric Cantona. He scored the first goal, was involved in the next two and still found time to reacquaint himself with controversy.

The match was just over an hour old when Philippe Albert was involved in a contretemps with Gary Neville. Cantona, newly crowned as captain, charged over and grabbed the Belgian by the scruff of his neck and hurled him to the ground. As the Newcastle supporters bayed for his dismissal referee Paul Durkin took the charitable view and settled for a yellow card.

Both managers played down the incident later - though Ferguson suggested Albert had "made a lot of it". Cantona himself said with a grin: "I must be very strong. I just pushed somebody and he fall down. It was nothing much."

Indeed, it would be a shame if the incident were to overshadow the champions' performance. For much of the game they were superb while Newcastle, to quote their manager's own words, "were dreadful".

Kevin Keegan added: "In the first half we were abysmal, the second we were a little bit better. There looked a massive gulf between the sides. I don't think it's as big as that - I hope it's not."

There was an ironic echo in Newcastle's performance of their 1974 FA Cup defeat here to a Liverpool side which included Keegan. On that day the saddest figure was Malcolm MacDonald, yesterday it was his successor as Newcastle's No 9, Alan Shearer, who was as anonymous as anyone could be with 70,000 people chanting their name in praise or abuse.

Shearer must have wondered whether letting his heart rule his head was such a wise decision. It does not matter how good he is, if he does not get the ball, he is not going to score any goals. "We were pretty desperate, we can only get better," he said. "It is really early days. There won't be any magic wands, we've got to defend as well as score goals, we didn't do either today." Any plus points, he was asked. "That we kept the score down to four."

There was much for him to ponder on the long journey home last night, not least the failure of the "dream team" partnership with Les Ferdinand. The pair looked too similar and too isolated only linking once early in the first half when Shearer was unable to manage a clear strike after a one-two with his partner.

"When we lost momentum and they came at us it gave us a chance to see what they do in the last third with the new system," Ferguson said. He added: "I quite enjoyed that part." Keegan himself said: "We know the partnership will work better."

The real problems were elsewhere. The thought occurred, not for the first time, that Newcastle might have been better served spending their millions on Paulo Maldini, Marcel Desailly and Peter Schmeichel. Not that any of them would be available, least of all Schmeichel who has begun the season in such form that it seems he has been stung by suggestions that David Seaman has assumed the mantle of the world's No 1.

Not that he was unduly troubled until the game was effectively won and lost. After some early half-chances the first genuine one fell to Cantona. Fed by Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs he skipped between Newcastle's central defence only to be well denied by Pavel Srnicek's left leg. Newcastle did not learn from their escape as a minute later David Beckham drew John Beresford and, with Albert out of position, slipped a pass to Cantona. This time Srnicek could not deny him.

Five minutes later Beckham seized upon Cantona's back-flick and drove in a precise cross which Nicky Butt neatly headed in.

Then came the most predictable moment of the afternoon when Roy Keane was booked for squaring up to, of all people, the referee himself.

Manchester United's grasp slipped slightly at the beginning of the second half, partly because Newcastle had been roused by Keegan's half-time exaltations but also because Butt had departed with concussion. He and Keane had demanded the platform for Beckham, Cantona and Giggs to torment Newcastle and until the pretenders are capable of matching United in that area they will remain pretenders.

Butt's departure gave Karel Poborsky a chance to make his debut and although United took time to adjust to the new shape it did give Beckham the opportunity to move into the centre. It was from there that he scored the third, chipping Srnicek from 30 yards after Cantona had played him in. Keane hit a fourth from Giggs' tapped free-kick and there would have been a fifth by Giggs or Keane had but for Srnicek. "We are trying to win everything," Cantona said. "This team can keep improving."

A frightening prospect about which Keegan could only say: "We will still be their biggest rival. I know we're better than that."