United defused a potentially explosive Carling Cup tie at Leeds with a first-half display of composure, control and devastating football.
Michael Owen is simply a natural goalscorer. Within 15 minutes of his first involvement of the campaign, the striker had silenced the home fans and his second strike was a thing of beauty. Captain Ryan Giggs capped of 45 minutes of dominant play with a stunning solo effort that he could have been scoring here in the mid-nineties.
Even with a side designed to give players a game under their belt, hence the inclusion of Michael Carrick alongside Ezekiel Fryers at centre-back and four forwards in the line-up, the Reds were a cut above their rivals from across the Pennines.
The game’s first opening fell to the hosts, and spawned a melee of desperate interventions in the United ranks. Tom Lees’ powerful header was blocked by Dimitar Berbatov, Ben Amos repelled the defender’s follow-up and Berbatov was again on hand to thwart Ross McCormack’s attempts to turn in the loose ball.
Around a game largely devoid of early inspiration, however, the most compelling contest was taking place off the field, as both factions of supporters waged choral war on one another. On the quarter-hour mark, only the visiting section was audible as United moved ahead in devastatingly simple circumstances.
Berbatov slid an inch-perfect pass into the path of Ji-sung Park, who had timed his run perfectly. The South Korean fed Owen, who needed only two touches: one with his right foot to tee up the shot; the second with his left foot to roll a finish in-between Aidan White’s legs and into the net, via the base of Andy Lonergan’s left-hand post.
Leeds’ response was gradual, as Adam Clayton thudded a decent effort into Amos’ midriff and Robert Snodgrass curled a shot just past the upright, but the hosts’ growing menace was soon nipped in the bud, and again in clinical fashion.
Mame Biram Diouf rolled off the attentions of Leigh Bromby and advanced down the right flank before slipping a neat pass into the path of Owen. Again, the striker’s predatory instincts kicked in. One touch to kill the ball, another to send it hurtling into Lonergan’s top corner with hardly any backlift.
Thereafter, Leeds’ defence creaked under pressure every time United picked up the ball in midfield, with Giggs and Park pulling the attacking strings and Owen and Berbatov dropping between the hosts’ lines to link play. Antonio Valencia slid horribly wide from the six-yard box, then forced Lonergan into a scrambling save as he tried to drill a low cross to the lurking Owen, but a third goal finally arrived in the final moments of the half.
Giggs took a short corner to Park, received the ball back and nutmegged Snodgrass with regal ease, before advancing into the box and stabbing a finish which nicked Luciano Becchio’s shin on its way past Lonergan. That was the veteran’s final contribution of the half, as he made way for Paul Pogba during the interval.
Leeds had no answer and were unable to muster a significant response with Owen close to completing a hat-trick with a chip that drifted wide, after latching onto a Berbatov through ball and displaying composure inside the box. Another threaded through ball by Berbatov released Federico Macheda but the Italian shot wide when offside in any case.
Amos was rarely tested but handled well under pressure from Ross McCormack as Sir Alex introduced fit-again Danny Welbeck and another debutant in Larnell Cole in place of Diouf and Macheda.
Clayton, a self-confessed City fan, was unable to grab a consolation he’d remember when his effort blazed over the top with United limiting the hosts to sporadic attacks and moments of danger. Even an injury to Fryers, who was flawless at the back, which led to Park and then Berbatov filling in for the ten men at the heart of the defence, seemed to add insult to injury to Simon Grayson’s team. Ramon Nunez’s late shot wide proved to be the final effort as the Reds eased through.
Glory Glory ManUnited!