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Apr 22, 2009

United relieved to avoid drama

A mundane, largely one-sided victory may not live as long in the memory as the implausible 4-4 draw at Anfield, but there is much to be said for it. Title challenges can be built on 1-0 and 2-0 wins, games where opponents are subdued and conquered with the minimum of fuss. Manchester United can testify to that as they moved three points ahead of Liverpool with a game that was almost the antithesis of their rivals' extravaganza 24 hours before.

For the defending champions, a relatively quiet occasion was all the more welcome. Sir Alex Ferguson was tetchy on the touchline, but nothing like as irritated as Rafa Benitez had been the previous night. A few tense minutes before Michael Carrick's soothing second was the closest to a fraught finale. Fittingly, it was supplied by Paul Scholes, with a slide-rule pass for the substitute to strike a low shot past David James. As he joined Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes in the select group of players to have represented United 600 times, Scholes did his utmost to maintain his preferred anonymity before delivering the decisive ball.

It was a landmark occasion for him, but a memorable one for a rather younger midfielder. If Scholes was the sentimental choice, Anderson was the influential one. The veteran lacks the Brazilian's dreadlocked look and exuberant attitude, but some of Anderson's passing was worthy of Scholes at his finest.

Given his continued inability to score for United (penalty shootouts excepted), he may have seemed a strange selection for a more advanced role ahead of Scholes and Darren Fletcher, but he prospered. United's attacking diamond shone in the opening exchanges, when they played with a fluency that has often eluded them in recent weeks. "Some of the football we played in the first half was magnificent," said Ferguson. "It was some of the best you'll see all season."

Ryan Giggs was a contributor as his excellent campaign continued. Switching from left flank to right, he glided past opponents with conspicuous ease. The chant of "Giggs will tear you apart again" remains as true today as it was when it was coined. The front four, also incorporating Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, comprised United's own joy division. Three of them combined for the opening goal. Displaying wonderful awareness, Anderson swivelled to loft a 30-yard pass to Giggs. The Welshman steered his low centre into the penalty area and Rooney arrived to finish coolly.

Thereafter, the attacking quartet interchanged positions, more than is possible when Dimitar Berbatov is present. Indeed, several took it in turns to search for the second goal before Carrick eventually obliged. After John O'Shea's header was cleared off the line by Nadir Belhadj, James blocked from Giggs, the winger then missed from six yards following Ronaldo's cross and Fletcher completed a move he had started himself by drilling narrowly wide.

Rooney was another to be thwarted by James, but the supposed striker spent much of his time denying Portsmouth. There were occasions when, so diligent was he in his tracking back, that he appeared the most dedicated left wing-back imaginable, and there were times when he needed to be.

"I don't know what to make of it," added Ferguson. "We missed some fantastic opportunities. Instead of winning 5-0 at half-time, we're 1-0 up and we made it difficult for ourselves."

But Portsmouth had possession without ambition. Paul Hart's reluctance to introduce a second striker, though both Kanu and John Utaka were on the bench, was a sign of the limited intent that characterises many visitors to Old Trafford. Indeed, Hart admitted: "We have to be mindful of our position. We can't give away too many goals. Goal difference could be crucial for us. In that aspect, we have got to be careful whoever we play."

But his choices left Peter Crouch isolated and frustrated alone in attack. Once the injured David Nugent departed, the closest he came to support was from Glen Johnson, the right-back.

He had three counterparts in the United team, quite apart from Rooney's forays back there. Both Gary Neville and O'Shea were among the legions rested in the FA Cup semi-final, but neither was able to complete the game and now face several weeks on the sidelines. Rafael, the third of the trio, almost scored in added time, but the conclusion lacked the drama of the ending at Anfield. Manchester United could savour the comparative tedium.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Anderson - Following a fine showing against Porto and a decent display against Everton, the Brazilian capped one of the finest weeks of his United career with a starring role tonight. If his season has been underwhelming, recent games have provided reminders of his excellent start to life at Old Trafford.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: A third successive clean sheet, accomplished in the absence of Rio Ferdinand, may be the most pleasing element. That Ferguson emulated Benitez, Guus Hiddink and Arsene Wenger by adopting a 4-2-3-1 formation, was instructive.

PORTSMOUTH VERDICT: Hart's mission is almost accomplished: with 37 points Portsmouth probably only need one more win to survive, and this was only their second setback in his reign. But fielding a trio of holding midfielders, and persisting with them throughout, was an indication he was content to lose respectably rather than risk a thrashing in a bid to get a result.

STRIKING VERDICTS: Carlos Tevez may be leaving Old Trafford, but he would win any popularity contest with Berbatov after the latter's tame penalty on Sunday. There was a sprinkling of boos for the Bulgarian when his name was announced among the substitutes. While only a handful of fans applauded when he warmed up, Tevez, by contrast, was granted a rousing reception by the same supporters.

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