Solskjaer puts paid to Spurs

Manchester United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 0
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The Independent Online
The striker who looks young enough to be delivering newspapers, never mind hogging their headlines with his exploits, ensured that Manchester United stayed in touch with the Premiership pace-setters on a squally Sunday at Old Trafford.

With two masterpieces of the finisher's art, the 23-year-old Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored either side of half-time to take his tally to five goals from four starting appearances since a pounds 1.5m move from the Norwegian club Molde during the summer.

Solskjaer's ruthlessness aside, there was scant evidence to suggest that one team were the Double winners and the other struggling through a run which now extends to four defeats in five matches. Tottenham, who played with spirit and style, looked like a side who could yet join the running for a place in Europe given some judicious dealing in the transfer market.

The size of Alex Ferguson's outlay for the player celebrated on thousands of T-shirts as "Baby-Faced Killer" proves that there are still bargains to be had, particularly in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Solskjaer's feat was all the more laudable in view of the fact that some of the more vaunted names around him were as off-colour as the Stretford sky, and that his marker, Sol Campbell, began the game as if anything but a clean sheet would be a personal affront.

United took the lead with only their second shot on target. A throw-in, quickly taken by the faultless Denis Irwin while Spurs' Allen Nielsen lay prostrate on the track, brought Ryan Giggs into the game for almost the first time. Even when Giggs floated a deep cross towards the penalty spot, there appeared no immediate danger to Spurs.

For once, however, Campbell did not attack the ball in the air. Solskjaer, killing it with his first touch and placing it beyond Ian Walker with his second, maintained his record of scoring in every match he has played at Old Trafford.

The goal which wrapped up the points - and stretched United's sequence against Spurs to nine wins and just one defeat in 13 meetings - arrived shortly before the hour. It followed a sweeping move in which Jordi Cruyff and Eric Cantona each moved the ball on sweetly before Nicky Butt released Solskjaer to his left. An exquisite curling shot, played with pace, defeated Walker's dive.

Yet it was Spurs, lifted by the atmosphere as much as Rapid Vienna had been intimidated by it, who were the more composed and constructive unit before Solskjaer's first. Andy Sinton, whose England career ended with Graham Taylor's demise, had a productive first half at Gary Neville's expense. As early as the second minute he swept past the right-back to unleash a drive which Peter Schmeichel blocked with his body.

Twelve minutes later, Sinton's probing centre would surely have led to a goal had Rory Allen launched himself at the ball. And when the home defence were again exposed, by Ruel Fox's cross from the opposite flank, United were relieved that David Howells handled before firing past Schmeichel.

By that stage, United had created only one clear-cut opening. Karel Poborsky, for once getting the better of the Manchester-born Clive Wilson in their private touchline tussle, laid the ball back into the path of Giggs, who fired wildly over.

The Welshman, who was to be withdrawn because of an ankle injury at half- time, then over-hit his cross with red shirts queuing up as if waiting to enter the United Megastore.

Moments before the interval, Teddy Sheringham failed to put sufficient power behind a free header. Immediately after it, he was again unmarked as he climbed to a cross. This time, Schmeichel saved athletically, and Solskjaer's accuracy soon put the England striker's profligacy into sharp focus.

Undeterred, Sheringham initiated the move of the match by chipping the ball precisely into the path of the ever-willing Allen with 14 minutes remaining. The resultant cross was met by a mid-air volley from Fox, which whistled over the angle of post and bar.

United finished strongly, with Butt forcing a fine tip-over from Walker. Butt and David May were only playing because of injuries to Roy Keane and Ronny Johnsen. Therein lies a major difference between the clubs: Shorn of Gary Mabbutt, Chris Armstrong and Darren Anderton, Spurs simply do not have the squad strength.

No such problems for Ferguson. With all the permutations available to him, and the unexpected early success of Solskjaer, he complained afterwards that deciding on his strongest team was becoming "a bit of a nightmare". United have a 12-day break before the summit meeting at home to Liverpool, but the nightmare may yet befall the clubs aspiring to take their title.

Goals: Solskjaer (38) 1-0; Solskjaer (57) 2-0.

Manchester United: (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister Irwin; Poborsky (Scholes, 64), Beckham, Butt, Giggs (Cruyff, h-t); Cantona; Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Cole, McClair, Van der Gouw (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Calderwood, Campbell, Wilson; Fox (Rosenthal, 83), Nielsen, Howells (Edinburgh, 69), Sinton; Sheringham, Allen. Substitutes not used: Nethercott, Kerslake, Baardsen (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Bookings: United: Beckham, Pallister. Tottenham: Allen, Howells.

Man of the match: Irwin. Attendance: 54,943.