United face the shock of the new

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The Independent Online
Manchester United1 Aston Villa 0

If nothing else, Andy Cole is diplomatic. "I came here to play with great players," he said in the aftermath of scoring his first goal for Manchester United. What he could have added was: "and when I find some I'll let you know".

Or perhaps we misunderstood him. Maybe he was spelling it as "grate", because if anything was designed to rub up a striker into desperate actions it was the passing of his team-mates. On this evidence, you could see why Eric Cantona resorted to violence,except why a spectator copped it and not Lee Sharpe is a wonder.

The blame lies with Alex Ferguson. For years players at Old Trafford have watched strikers, be it Cantona, Mark Hughes or Brian McClair, come towards them, so it has come as a culture shock that the United manager has invested a fortune on a striker who races away as if his midfield are wearing some unpleasant aftershave. In terms of adjustment, the aristocracy had an easier time coming to terms with the fall of the Bastille.

Repeatedly Cole would create space on the line of the Villa back four and required only the starting gun of a decent pass to hare for the goal. The problem was that an accurate, properly weighted ball in this match was a rarity.

Sharpe, who also managed to hit a post when faced with an open goal, and Paul Scholes, barely found a red shirt all afternoon (perhaps it was the shock of United playing in their traditional colours), while McClair and Ince were irretrievably below par.

"It was one of those games where our passing was never on," Ferguson said. "We got a result and a vital one because half the team didn't play anywhere near their best. It's as good a sign as you can get when you are chasing a championship. It gives you good vibes that we are back on the road."

It is unlikely that Ferguson would have been so sanguine if United's bandwagon had been shoved into the ditch by Villa. In the closing minutes the visitors flung themselves at the home rearguard and a point was the least they deserved.

As it was, Dean Saunders had a "goal" disallowed because the ball had gone out for a corner in the build-up, while Tommy Johnson pulled a shot wide when he should have done better. Saunders also hit the bar in the first half.

"It was a day when we had to depend on one or two players to churn out a win for us," Ferguson said, and Cole was undoubtedly among that number. Britain's most expensive player agreed he should have done better in his previous matches for United since his move from Newcastle but was justifiably happier with his performance on Saturday, when he looked more a £7m man and less an over-priced asset.

Apart from his goal, a crisp turn to scoop Gary Pallister's header into the roof of the net after 17 minutes, he also clipped the bar with a header in the second half and oozed menace throughout. "That's killed all your headlines," Ferguson said with a mischievous grin. "He's 23 and we know he'll get lots of goals for us."

Goal: Cole (17) 1-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville (May, 63), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs (Kanchelskis, 45), McClair, Ince, Sharpe; Scholes, Cole. Substitute not used: Walsh (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Charles, McGrath, Teale, Small; Yorke (Houghton, 60), Townsend, Taylor, Staunton; Fashanu (Johnston, 43), Saunders. Substitute not used: Spink (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).