Souness adds insult to United's injury

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"It was our day" Graeme Souness said on Saturday evening, but he will have guessed that his revived Southampton side would have to take second place in the headlines to their illustrious victims, especially in the context of the Champions' rout at Newcastle six days previously. To lose five goals might have seemed like a misfortune, but to lose six does look like carelessness.

The United manager, Alex Ferguson, had written off the Newcastle defeat as a "blip", and while he paid tribute to Southampton for their "really good inventive football in the final third of the field", he was more anxious, in public at least, to emphasise United's one consolation from the game, the brave attempt by their 10 men to claw back the 3-1 half- time deficit, before, as he put it, "their legs ran out", and United were swamped by Southampton's tide of three more goals in the last seven minutes.

Ferguson's brief comments were delivered to a handful of radio reporters before he dashed for the team bus and a quick getaway from what must now be his least favourite football ground. He may genuinely have been in a rush but the effect of ignoring the written press was simply to leave many questions unanswered.

Try these for example: how fit is Gary Pallister, whose back has given him trouble all season and who had to leave the game at the interval? Is Roy Keane, booked in the fifth minute for dissent and again in the 21st for a foul, thereby generating a dismissal on his return to the Premiership, becoming more of a liability than an asset given his increasingly poor disciplinary record?

Should the club captain, Eric Cantona, be rested until he rediscovers his form? And is Ferguson's obsession with winning the European Cup undermining his team's commitment to defending their Premiership?

Without the benefit of the manager's input - and Ferguson is more likely to have "hair-dried" such a questioner than to have given a straight answer - we can only make educated guesses. United's three Premierships in the past four seasons were founded on the defensive solidarity provided by Pallister and Steve Bruce. But with Bruce gone, and poor Pallister in various stages of incapacity the strain on their replacements and the one-season veterans is beginning to show. The much-mooted signing of Miguel Angel Nadal from Barcelona will now be back on the agenda.

It was Pallister who was fooled by Eyal Berkovitch's sixth-minute flick to Egil Ostenstadt, whose run had not been picked up by Philip Neville at left back, and though Peter Schmeichel saved the Norwegian's shot, the Israeli, Berkovitch, was first to the rebound to rifle home. Neither Brian McClair, on for the injured Nicky Butt, nor David May could get to Matthew Le Tissier as he took Berkovitch's pass and followed Davor Suker and Philippe Albert into Schmeichel's nightmares with a gorgeous chip shot.

And though David Beckham, United's resistance leader on the day, had raised hopes with his precise free-kick, May was simply brushed aside by the powerful Ostenstadt for the third, which gave Southampton the security they needed to deny United in their "all or nothing" second-half fight.

Cantona, who was also booked for dissent in the first half, was a marginal figure as United pushed forward, while Jordi Cruyff underlined his frailties by missing from inside the six-yard box. But apart from May's far-post header from Beckham's free-kick, which brought United back to just a goal behind, the Southampton defence were mostly happy for United to exhaust themselves in the assault.

When Gary Neville was caught in possession advancing from his area, this signalled the empty sign on United's fuel tank. So not too much could be read into Southampton's last three goals, apart from the wonderful touches which Berkovitch showed both as a passer and as a striker of the ball, and Ostenstadt's ruthless opportunism whenever he saw the United goal.

But Paul Scholes' late strike seems more likely to confuse the issue of just who United's first choice strikers should be. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got just the last seven minutes here, and having fielded the equivalents of Pakistani Test debutants against Swindon last week, Ferguson will no doubt rotate his squad yet again in search of the right team for the European game against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Insiders say that no United player is told whether he is in or out of the team until two hours before a game, so Keane, who was also sent off when captain of Ireland in March, will have to wait for the nod like the rest.

Ferguson's strategy to give priority to qualifying for Europe's final stages with the immediate demands of the Premiership may well be vindicated by a win against the Turks, but there is no telling yet how much damage these two grisly defeats have inflicted on his players' morale.

Southampton (3-5-1-1): Beasant; Van Gobbel, Lundekvam, Dryden, Dodd, Oakley, Berkovitch, Neilson (Magilton, 75), Charlton (Potter, 70), Le Tissier (Watson, 88), Ostenstadt. Substitutes not used: Moss (gk), Slater.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister (Irwin, 45), P Neville, Beckham, Butt (McClair, 17), Keane, Cantona, Cruyff (Solskjaer, 83), Scholes. Substitutes not used: Poborsky, Thornley.

Referee: J Winter (Durham).

Bookings: Southampton: Lundekvam. Manchester United: Cantona, Cruyff, G Neville. Sending off: Keane.

Man of the match: Berkovitch. Attendance: 15,253.

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