Man Utd 3 Southampton 2

Saturday 31st January 2004
Old Trafford, Manchester

Manchester United overcame controversy to secure another three points, and to put them top of the Premier League. In a hard fought and exciting battle with Southampton, United showed determination, guile and agility, but depended on good fortune to score their goals.

Before the game, Southampton had odds at a massive 9-1 to beat United. The fact that bookies were so keen to offer such handsome rates was quite simply because they thought United had literally no chance of losing this game.

United were fresh from a two week break (for many players), were at home, had a brand new signing in Louis Saha to show off, were sat near the top of the league, and were motivated to win partly by losing their last premiership game to Wolves, but also because they suffered a rare defeat when they played Southampton earlier this season.

The game began brightly for United, with resurgent attacking being the order of the day. The ball was passed around with ease, and chances were at least being created if not converted. In the 18th minute, Ronaldo was fouled on the edge of the area, and Saha took the resulting free-kick. His free-kick may have been on target, but it took a wicked deflection off the head of Southampton's Kevin Phillips to end up in the back of the net.

United continued to dominate play, and the fans must have been thinking that Southampton were in for a drubbing. Particularly after Saha's second shot of the afternoon could only be pushed out to the feet of Paul Scholes by the Southampton keeper. Scholes, naturally, slotted the ball home.

But here is where United's fairytale opening to the game ends. Almost instantly, Kevin Phillips shot from 20 yards out at the other end. The ball took another wicked deflection this time off the hand of Brett Ormerod and Howard was left stranded as the ball bounced gently into the back of the net.

As if losing one goal wasn't enough, United seemed to struggle to keep their concentration and composure after half-time. Instead, they looked decidedly dodgy in defence, and anonymous in midfield. And when a flawed pass by Wes Brown went straight to a Southampton player and leaving the United defence perilously wide open, it took just one player to defeat the whole United defence. Phillips struck from 30 yards, and Howard's moment of hesitation cost him dearly. The ball rocketed into the corner of the net, just out of reach of the usually reliable American keeper. Indeed, Howard also misjudged a few crosses and high balls in this game though thankfully for him they led to nothing.

United had lost a two goal margin for the first time this season. Fortunately Ronaldo was still playing well, and when he got awarded another free-kick near the edge of the area, United's big men went upfield in search of a winning goal. Ronaldo took the free-kick, which was blocked by the hands of Fabrice Fernandes. Given that Fernandes was stood in the box and raised his hands deliberately, it seems odd that United weren't awarded a penalty and Fernandes sent off. The Referee didn't have the courage to make such a big decision. Controversy continued when, from the resulting free-kick (The Ref thought the hand-ball had occurred outside the box), Ruud van Nistelrooy put the ball in the net from an off-side position.

Southampton pressed for an equaliser, but to no avail, and United avoided losing any points in what could have easily turned out to be an embarrassing game.

Man Utd: Howard; O'Shea, Brown, Silvestre, Fortune; Ronaldo (Butt 90), Phil Neville, Keane, Scholes; Saha (Fletcher 70), van Nistelrooy. Subs Not Used: Carroll, Kleberson, Forlan.

Southampton: Niemi; Dodd, Hall, Higginbotham, Le Saux (Kenton 80); Anders Svensson, Delap, Telfer, Fernandes (Pahars 67); Phillips, Ormerod (Beattie 67). Subs Not Used: Smith, Folly. Booked: Higginbotham, Ormerod.

Attendance: 67,758. Referee: G Barber (Hertfordshire).