United face the strain of changes

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Sheffield Wednesday. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

ALEX FERGUSON, to paraphrase a certain advertising slogan, did not wish to make a drama out of a third consecutive away defeat. Yet the impression Manchester United left at Hillsborough was that of a team in crisis - an identity crisis.

In the European Cup, which is predictably emerging as their priority, the United manager is prevented from fielding his preferred side. In the League Cup, he is condemned for not doing so. Back in the Premiership, further disrupted by injuries and international calls, his team resembled the champions in neither style nor spirit, and duly fell to a classic striker's goal by David Hirst.

Ferguson hinted afterwards at the difficulty of juggling resources to meet the demands of such disparate opponents as Galatasaray and Liverpool, Port Vale and Wednesday. 'It doesn't help when you're changing the team all the time - that goes without saying - but we should be getting better results,' he said.

As if realising his remarks would be interpreted as excuses, Ferguson suddenly curtailed this line of inquiry and launched into the eternal lament over missed chances. But with Barcelona due at Old Trafford a week on Wednesday and United slipping in the title race, the lack of continuity is taking a palpable toll on consistency.

They badly missed Andrei Kanchelskis and Eric Cantona, and while Keith Gillespie kept the starlet standard high in the absence of Ryan Giggs, Hirst's winner had its origins in the debutant's inability to accelerate away from defenders. Paul Ince alone looked the force of last spring, too many colleagues being recognisable for their petulance rather than purposefulness.

Wednesday were even more disadvantaged, having six internationals unavailable, but like Leeds and Ipswich, found the prospect of beating the Double winners motivation enough. In no one was this trait more apparent than Hirst, who, as Trevor Francis observed, always seems to play well against United. 'That's why they offered pounds 3.5m for him two years ago,' the Wednesday manager said.

At that time Hirst was valued more highly than Alan Shearer. After his recent problems - prior to United's visit he had been dropped to substitute after failing to find his form following Achilles surgery - it would be premature to suggest that he is back in the England reckoning. Few rivals, however, have his unusual blend of raw power and delicacy of touch.

The build-up to his goal started with Ian Nolan's tackle on Gillespie in the home box. A typically precise pass by Chris Bart-Williams released Hirst, who curled a low shot past Peter Schmeichel. Wednesday grew in confidence and ultimately deserved a first home win; United, who could have been 3-0 up, thus suffered a hat-trick of away reverses for the first time since the days of Martin, Milne, Duxbury and Donaghy five years ago.

For both clubs, their reaction to this result may shape the season. United's previous conquerors failed to build on beating them, which should be a warning to Wednesday. Ferguson, meanwhile, needs to establish a more settled line-up. With the Champions' League looming and several players booked in for operations, the task will test even his considerable acumen.

Goal: Hirst (44) 1-0.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Atherton, Pearce, Walker, Nolan; Bart-Williams (Taylor, 65), Sheridan, Hyde, Briscoe; Hirst, Bright (Watson, 89). Substitute not used: Key (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; Parker (May, 61), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Gillespie (Scholes, 76), Keane, Ince, Sharpe; McClair; Hughes. Substitute not used: Walsh (gk).

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).