United learn the lessons

After their European departure, Ferguson's side return to face home tru ths and heighten their Premiership ambitions
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Ferdinand 23, 64

Manchester United 3

Scholes 34, 47, Keane 44


TWO HOURS after Manchester United's European expedition had turned from Coronation Street to Desolation Row last Wednesday, Alex Ferguson was graciously entertaining a few guests in his hospitality room in the eves of Old Trafford's South Stand. His chinwas up until the turning-point memory of the campaign intruded again.

"I still don't understand that first goal in Gothenburg," the United manager lamented. "We never play offside, not on the halfway line." Was that the moment that United retained the championship? Yesterday at Loftus Road at least offered evidence of whatthe Premiership fears, that United will intensify their domestic efforts now that they are no longer sidetracked.

In recovering from a goal down - and it might have been more - then clinging on with resolution against a spirited Queens Park Rangers, they extended an unbeaten league sequence to nine matches, eight of which they have won.

Rangers' own run of four home victories was thus snapped, but their new manager Ray Wilkins can take consolation from a display of skill and verve that all but matched the champions in a game of six bookings and a couple of scuffles, but entertainment beyond numbers.

United achieved their victory without six first-choice players, including Eric Cantona, away with France, and the suspended Mark Hughes. They had, however, adequate compensation in Paul Scholes, another of the maturing players from their outstanding youth team, who scored twice. Les Ferdinand, coveted by Ferguson but perhaps less so now, did the same for Rangers in flitting in and out of the game, but Roy Keane's goal was the difference.

The lessons most thoroughly absorbed are those most painfully inflicted. The first for Ferguson in Europe has been that of modifying away from home the ambitious instincts that Old Trafford exhorts and reinforcing resilience in defence.

At first there was a strange reticence to them, however, and they should have gone behind after eight minutes. David Bardsley's cross to the far post was headed back by Danny Maddix and the lively young striker Kevin Gallen, who was to prove the home side's best player, headed against the United bar. From the rebound, Steve Hodge hit the same spot.

The goal Rangers deserved was not long in coming. When Ferdinand picked the ball up some 30 yards from goal there seemed little danger, but a second later the ball was bulging the net high to Gary Walsh's right.

United responded with Scholes hitting the bar from an overhead kick but it was rare respite at this point. Walsh, in the first of several good saves, dived low to prevent Andy Impey doubling the lead with a header before United found their rhythm, urged on by Paul Ince's mixture of talent and talons. And how they did, with three goals in 12 minutes, even if all were courtesy of absent-minded moments in the home defence.

First Denis Irwin's cross from the left was allowed to reach Scholes at the far post and the little striker's header down to Sieb Dykstra's left found the corner of the net. Then Scholes's neat lay-off enabled Brian McClair to send Keane clear and he slipped the ball under the goalkeeper.

The turnaround was complete just after the break when a corner from the right by Simon Davies drifted through the QPR six-yard area, and even had time to bounce before Scholes headed home, again at the far post. "His movement off the ball was exceptionaland he is a good target though he is a little chap," Wilkins rued afterwards.

Ferdinand's second, heading home Gallen's cross from the right, set up a rousing finale which saw Rangers claim a penalty for a nudge on Ferdinand, Walsh save one-handed a deflected shot from Gallen, then at Hodge's feet, and Nicky Butt and Simon Barker squaring up. This time, however, United found a way to win.

Ferguson clearly has the depth of squad to prosper at home. "They are the best team in the Premiership," said Wilkins. "They have so many young players who can play, know their function and play within the team structure."

Europe will remain another matter until Ferguson can add an experienced English player or two to the promising young bloods who may ease his problems, notably David Beckham on Wednesday's evidence, even if Galatasaray provided only token opposition.

Against the Turks, United did show - encouragingly if they are to profit from their experiences - that they had learned one lesson. Last season, 3-1 up, they indulged themselves with some exhibition play; this time, when two goals ahead, there was no respite from their ruthlessness. Nor any for QPR yesterday.