United ready to take on Europe

Manchester United 2 West Ham United 1
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The Independent Online
The wonderful thing about having young players is the "if" factor. If they mature, if they progress, if they stay fit and are not led astray, then the boundaries of potential can be pushed forward season by season.

Manchester United's Champions' League campaign last time ended in a mountain of might-have-beens, but it proved one thing: the players could reach Europe's summit and win the Premiership. Technically they were too gauche, physically they endured.

Which has allowed Alex Ferguson to expand his horizons. Twelve months ago he was talking of harbouring resources, keeping within touching distance of the domestic leaders until the league part of the European Cup was over and then going for the Premiership in the New Year. This time, his young players blossoming and showing negligible sign of leaving the rails, Christmas has come early.

"We should stay at the top," he said. "Europe was such a big thing for us last year and we had so many young players, keeping in the title race was a worry for me. I would think we are better placed to handle things this time around."

Ferguson's concerns were understandable. Only Liverpool (twice) have acquired the talent and resilience to win the championship and the European Cup in the same season, and it was no coincidence United's horrid patch last year came when the club were enmeshed in the Champions' League. After defeating Fenerbahce in Turkey on 16 October they lost three successive League games, surrendering 13 goals in the process, and had a 40-year unbeaten home record in Europe snatched from them.

United begin their pursuit of Ferguson's European dream against Kosice in Slovakia this Wednesday and although the labyrinthine qualification system makes reaching the knockout phase of the Champions' League more difficult, they seem to have acquired a worldliness to cope with toiling on two fronts.

Afterwards Kosice's representative, Miroslav Miklos, said he was surprised at the narrow margin between the champions and West Ham, although impressions could be misleading. Against Coventry and on Saturday United might have lost points yet, while their attack has flowed with real conviction only against Everton this season, like Liverpool in their pomp they are doing just enough.

West Ham took the lead moments after Roy Keane had hit the bar when Gary Pallister made a hash of a back pass and John Hartson got there before Peter Schmeichel. If Paul Kitson had turned a one-on-one with the goalkeeper into two a minute later the Slovak spy would have gone home with a happy tale to tell.

Two down and it would have been "hard to get out of jail", as Ferguson put it, but a deficit of one was within United's scope. "I wasn't worried," he said. "I've seen it so many times before. We win matches late in the game because we keep persevering. We keep the momentum of our passing game going and it stretches teams and tires them."

No one more so than Roy Keane, who had the sort of match where he appears to have split and is involved twice as much as anyone else. Nicky Butt matched him for earth-shaking challenges, but the Irishman also swept the ball to the wings like a latter-day Bobby Charlton and got the equaliser, albeit with a lucky deflection, after 20 minutes.

Keane, Butt and Paul Scholes were singled out for praise by their manager afterwards and when the first duo play with such authority it is not difficult to see why the clamour for David Beckham to get a central midfield role for his club goes unheeded. Ferguson's United teams have had two enforcers at the core since Bryan Robson was coupled with Paul Ince and he is unlikely to be persuaded to change now.

Beckham had one of his black and white days on Saturday, either sloppy and distracted by taunts about Posh Spice from the West Ham supporters - a gesture should have been punished - or astonishing with his awareness and speed of thought. He hit the bar after 58 minutes with a dipping shot that few could match and then threaded a cross through a packed area 16 minutes later that allowed Scholes to get the winner with a majestic header.

United's Dangerous Spice embodies their attack this season. Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Scholes are sometimes split between FM and medium wave, but that is the downside to Ferguson letting them play off the cuff. If they are not sure what they are doing until instinct takes over it is difficult to communicate to others and, at the moment, things are more miss than hit.

Stifle them, force them to conform, and the end product will diminish, which was a philosophy echoed by Harry Redknapp afterwards. The West Ham manager was frustrated by Kitson's missed opportunities - he compounded his early error with two further lapses - but was encouraged by his side's progress, particularly that of Rio Ferdinand.

The 18-year-old has had a trying two weeks but exuded authority beyond his years. "Nothing fazes him," Redknapp said. "He's laid back about everything. That's the way he plays and I'd never want to change. He takes chances at times but if you stop him he would be like 400 other centre halves in England. He'll come unstuck one day but you have to encourage him to play that way. Bobby [Moore] never used to kick it anywhere, neither did Beckenbauer."

Neither do United, who believe the European Cup is within their compass this season if everything goes their way. If.

Goals: Hartson (13) 0-1; Keane (20) 1-1; Scholes (74) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs (Poborsky, 67); Scholes, Cole (McClair, 89). Substitutes not used: Irwin, Van der Gouw (gk), Clegg.

West Ham United (3-5-2): Miklosko; Potts, Ferdinand, Unsworth; Breacker, Lomas, Moncur (Lampard, 81), Berkovitch, Hughes; Kitson, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Sealey (gk), Dowie, Terrier, Rowland.

Bookings: Manchester United: Berg. West Ham: Hughes, Hartson.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Attendance: 55,068.

Man of the match: Keane.