United's coming of age

Everton 2 Limpar 27, Rideout 55 Manchester United 3 Sharpe 3 49, Giggs 74 Attendance: 39,496
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IN a match that greeted the return of the Premiership after the international break with an appropriate example of its thrills and spills, Manchester United eventually took the points after grabbing the lead for the third time in the match and holding on. Three weeks ago they looked stripped of all assets; four consecutive wins later, these kids look more than alright.

Having just lost Andy Cole with a muscle pull, his substitute Ryan Giggs seized his moment to steer home a low shot after the fast-developing David Beckham had found him in space.

And so Everton were finally finished off, and had their doom confirmed when David Unsworth was shown his second yellow card, the ninth of the match, and was sent off after rash tackles on the other substitute Simon Davies and Giggs within a few minutes of each other.

Goodison was packed to capacity, the atmosphere crackling after the transfer wrangle concerning Andrei Kanchelskis between the clubs a month ago. Despite finally getting their man, Everton remained upset at having to pay an extra pounds 500,000 to ease the move, with his previous club, Shakhtyor Donetsk, entitled to a slice. United played down all talk of there being blood in the boardroom, but it was believed that their chief executive Martin Edwards had stayed away.

Everton had become something of a bogey side for United in 1995 with two 1-0 victories, at Goodison and Wembley, the latter of those wins now commemorated in the Everton reception area by a picture of Paul Rideout's headed winning goal.

It was the first of those matches, though, that saw the relationship between Alex Ferguson and Kanchelskis deteriorate, the Ukrainian who plays for Russia taking exception to being left out.

It was a match that also saw United's championship chances change - with a display of grim grit Blackburn held on here for a 2-1 win. That day, the eventual champions matched Everton for industry and determination in midfield and United were clearly aware that was what they needed to do yesterday if they were to stop Everton completing a hat-trick of wins.

They swiftly bypassed it, however, with a movement of fluency and penetration which gave them an early lead. Cole, Beckham and Paul Scholes put together a neat triangle of passes on the right before Cole cutely slipped the ball inside the left-back Gary Ablett for Beckham to get in a low cross. Scholes could not quite turn it home at the near post but Lee Sharpe, having escaped his marker Paul Holmes, who was making a rare first-team appearance, had the simple task of burying his shot at the far post.

Everton could get little of value going and their chances of taking anything from the game seemed even slimmer when, in the 14th minute, they lost Kanchelskis, who had fallen heavily on a shoulder after being brought down by Sharpe. "What a waste of money," chanted the United fans at their pounds 5 million former player; Sharpe was thereafter continually jeered by Evertonians.

Out of nothing, however, Everton conjured an equaliser just before the half hour. Steve Bruce, hustled on the right by the substitute Andy Hinchcliffe and Anders Limpar, surrendered possession to the Swede, who danced through to steer a shot past Peter Schmeichel low into the far corner.

In a match now growing breathless, United might have retaken the lead when, after Dave Watson had fouled Scholes, Beckham curled a free-kick from 25 yards against the Everton bar with the right foot that is fast becoming both a subtle and potent weapon for United.

Now it was a vibrant match.Daniel Amokachi lifted a shot over the bar from close range just before half-time and steered another wide of a post just after. United responded with Nicky Butt sending Cole clear only for Neville Southall to save at his feet at the second attempt.

Then United took the lead again - only for Everton to retaliate swiftly. First Scholes clipped a ball across the box, Cole collected and was about to shoot when Sharpe arrived to steer the ball home. Soon after that Limpar curled a free-kick on to the crossbar, Dave Watson nodded down the rebound and Rideout tapped home a rapid equaliser.

With both sides committed to three points rather than one, it made for an exciting confrontation, messy at times but more often pacy and mesmerising.