With a mixture of passionate endeavour and Matthew Le Tissier in the teasing form that has mostly eluded him this season, Southampton overwhelmed a sorry United, who even changed their strip at half-time from the unlucky grey in which they have never won. But by the time Ryan Giggs turned home Gary Neville's cross they had been well and truly striped.
The Dell, cramped, quaint and a Premiership anachronism, is always an uncomfortable place for visiting teams, though United have coped well within its confines. Indeed, going into the match, Southampton had not beaten them, home or away, for seven years and 13 games, losing 10 and drawing three.
United, unbeaten since New Year's Day and having won 15 of their last 16 were certainly in form. The encouragement for Southampton was that United's lone draw was away to another relegation candidate in QPR. Then, they began uncertainly and fell behind; yesterday the pattern was repeated.
The game was barely a minute old when Roy Keane, returning after a suspension, played a loose pass across his own penalty area and on to which Jason Dodd latched at the far corner. Peter Schmeichel, so often United's saviour of late, did well to smother the shot and Le Tissier's weak shot from the rebound was easily cleared.
In another 10 minutes of impressive intent, Southampton had the lead. Steve Bruce, recalled after injury, fouled Simon Charlton near the left touchline and Le Tissier's free-kick found an unmarked Ken Monkou. Schmeichel pushed his header out excellently but was powerless when the Dutchman, first to react, drove home the rebound.
Schmeichel was angry with his defence soon after when Dodd's low shot squeezed just wide, and Le Tissier hit a post from an acute angle. It looked as if these misses might be costly until Saints claimed the second goal they so deserved.
Giggs was caught in possession on the left by Alan Neilson, whose low cross was met by Neil Shipperley, having a remarkably good season in a struggling side as a lone front runner, and he turned home at the near post his 13th goal of the season.
It said much about United; sloppy in possession and casual in defence. Remarkably, Southampton were rampant and United meek impressions of their usual selves. Nicky Butt and Keane could not gain any grip of midfield, with Venison and Jim Magilton so tenacious and Eric Cantona marginalised. United's frustration was graphic when Beckham lashed at Charlton, an incident missed by the referee.
Their goal efforts were rare and imprecise. Andy Cole did put Butt clear but he drove over the bar with only Dave Beasant to beat and Cole tested the goalkeeper himself after Cantona had flicked on Denis Irwin's free- kick but it was a weak effort.
Astonishingly they were three down two minutes before the break. Neilson's deep cross from the right had Schmeichel stretching and he could only tip it down to Le Tissier. Keeping his head, he calmly steered the ball into the far corner to cap an amazing half.
Word came that the referee, Graham Poll, had asked United to change strips at half-time, the grey apparently clashing with Southampton's stripes. The change to blue and white was accompanied by a player switch, Paul Scholes replacing Butt.
Southampton merely carried on where they had left off. Le Tissier juggled then hooked in a good cross from the left which Shipperley headed wide. Le Tissier followed that with a swerving 25-yard shot that Schmeichel had to go full length to clutch before Shipperley volleyed wide Charlton's cross.
Bruce headed just wide from Giggs's corner and Cole forced Beasant to save with his feet but United scarcely looked more threatening up front than in the first half. Southampton defended in depth as the game went on, breaking out rarely. The damage had been done.Reuse content