MAN UTD 3 - SAINTS 2

Daily Echo: BATTLER: Brett Ormerod puts the heat on Mikael Silvestre, left of picture, and Roy Keane. BATTLER: Brett Ormerod puts the heat on Mikael Silvestre, left of picture, and Roy Keane.

WHAT A GAME! At 1-0 United it was all over for Saints, at 2-0 United it was definitely all over, at 2-1 there was a slim chance, at 2-2 what was going on? At 3-2 United it was in the balance and, by full time, the score could have been anything.

With the team having a makeshift look about it because of injury and suspension, Saints performed not only valiantly but with great authority, poise and class to come within a whisker of grabbing a point from the champions.

I'm sure when they turned up at Old Trafford for the 12.30pm kick-off neither the United players or fans would have looked at the Saints team and thought they would be given a real run for their money.

The bookies, not normally ones to be generous with their money, agreed - 50-1 on Saints to win 2-0!

Sadly it eventually went to form and United ran out 3-2 winners but not before one of the best matches you'll see.

The game had virtually everything and, goodness me, Saints came close.

With Graeme Le Saux fit again at left-back Saints had an added threat, a bit of class on the ball and defensive composure that is so vital.

And with Kevin Phillips up front starting to hit some decent form alongside Brett Ormerod, things are looking good.

United's defence, on the other hand, were decidedly wobbly - as was the handling from crosses of their 'keeper Tim Howard.

Saints almost got through in only the fourth minute when Le Saux threaded the ball into the path of Rory Delap but he hit his shot low and Howard saved with his legs.

Minutes later Jason Dodd's outlandish chip from the right wing floated only narrowly past the post.

This wasn't what everybody expected when they turned up.

What they did expect happened on 18 minutes when debutant Louis Saha gave United the lead.

Delap was adjudged to have pulled down Ronaldo on the edge of the Saints area, just to the right of centre.

The script was written for Saha to step up and score, though probably not via the unwitting head of Kevin Phillips who left Antti Niemi totally stranded.

At this stage it seemed bleak for Saints. They had done very well indeed but once United scored it could have been all over.

But no. Ormerod missed a free header from just inside the area, while Fabrice Fernandes found the target but also the arms of Howard with a free kick.

Then seemingly disaster struck - 2-0. A brilliant passing move from United ended in Ruud van Nistelrooy laying the ball back for Saha.

The Frenchman's first-time shot scooted along the ground to Niemi who could only deflect it back into the centre of the penalty area where the on-rushing Paul Scholes finished.

But seconds later Saints pulled one back.

Phillips hit a shot from 25 yards which deflected off Ormerod and this time it was Howard left wrong-footed and stranded.

Whose goal it is remains to be seen. Technically it was probably Ormerod's but as Phillips' effort was on target let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

Into the second period and on 53 minutes Saints were level. Again it was Phillips shooting from distance - this time there was no deflection, just a stinging drive into the bottom corner.

Ormerod almost gave Saints the lead when he charged through moments later but unfortunately his side's parity lasted only eight minutes.

The eventual winner had plenty of controversy surrounding it.

Ronaldo took a free-kick from the right where the one-man wall of Fabrice Fernandes suddenly decided it was Superbowl Sunday a day early and deliberately handled the ball.

The assistant flagged for the offence and the referee went over to discuss it. A free-kick was awarded on the very edge of the area on the right-hand side even though the offence was committed in the box and should have been a penalty.

Ronaldo again took the free-kick, lofting it into the area. Van Nistelrooy was in an offside position but the ball didn't come to him.

However, after a short scramble in the area it did fall to a now on-side Van Nistelrooy, who turned the ball home off of Jason Dodd.

You may well ask if the ball hadn't left the penalty area since the free-kick was taken, how the first offside couldn't be given. Well, you would ask that if you had any common sense.

Sadly the person who drafted the new offside laws didn't have too much of that and it all comes down to phases of play.

The explanation will be that in phase one - the ball being played into the box - it didn't come near Van Nistelrooy so he wasn't interfering with play so he wasn't offside. By the time the ball did reach him it was phase two and he was on-side.

Great law that one isn't it!

Anyhow, Saints weren't demoralised and weren't defeated and kept going.

Anders Svensson forced Howard into a full-length save, while the introduction of Marian Pahars and James Beattie added fresh impetus.

It was Pahars who chipped to the far post where Danny Higginbotham tried a spectacular overhead kick that Howard turned onto the bar.

Moments later Beattie broke down the bye-line and squared the ball across the face of the goal where Phillips and several United defenders somehow managed to avoid getting the touch that would have earned Saints a point.

It really was one of those games that makes you glad to love football.

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