Britain's biggest gathering this season, the first of more than 50,000, left Old Trafford with mixed feelings last night. Their delight at Manchester United's victory, secured by Eric Cantona's stunning 65th-minutes goal, was tinged with disappointment that all their pressure on Arsenal did not produce the second which would have dislodged Newcastle from the Premiership's summit.
United made enough openings to have won several games, but they were thankful that Peter Schmeichel was sufficiently alert to thwart both Glenn Helder and John Hartson in the closing stages. Bruce Rioch, the Arsenal manager, admitted: "It was a pretty comprehensive 1-0 victory. It wasn't close and, though we had good chances, our goal had a charmed life."
Inspired by Cantona, who has now scored vital goals in the last four games, United laid siege to their visitors from the start. In only the fourth minute, a flurry of first-time touches gave Ryan Giggs a chance which forced David Seaman into the first of several excellent saves.
Seaman's right-hand post twice came to Arsenal's rescue. After 10 minutes, Roy Keane's diagonal drive came back off the upright, surprising Lee Sharpe, who failed to respond as the ball fell to him barely a yard out. Andy Cole's follow-up shot was blocked with some desperation.
As if Seaman were not preoccupied with stemming the crimson tide, David Platt put him under pressure with an ill-judged back-pass. Unfortunately for United, Cole had to turn before taking aim, which allowed the keeper to impose his body in the way. The deflected shot bobbled to safety off the same piece of woodwork.
Several audacious dummies, notably by Eric Cantona, added to Arsenal's bewilderment, though the more conventional route of the far-post cross brought United their best opportunities before the interval.
Sharpe was the provider and Cole the target, but his first header was diverted behind by Andy Linighan and the second found Seaman plunging to catch.
Arsenal's counter-attacks were few and far between. Hartson, sent through by Paul Merson, gave Philip Neville a chance to show the ability that has brought an England call-up. Hartson also broke out midway through the first half, but supplied Ian Wright when Dennis Bergkamp was unmarked and screaming for the ball. Wright, forced wide, failed to trouble Peter Schmeichel but the United keeper had to make a crucial reflex save early in the second half.
Phillip Neville's rash clearance dropped nicely for Hartson, whose drive was on its way into the net until Schmeichel snaked out his right foot.
Otherwise, it was one-way traffic, even if United failed to use all the gears they had found in the first half. David Hillier, who had replaced the unwell Bergkamp after half-time, risked conceding a penalty with a meaty challenge on Nicky Butt, while David May suddenly materialised in the Arsenal area with space and time to test Seaman. The ensuing shot, high into the Stretford End, resembled a defender's clearance.
With United struggling to find their fluency, it was not surprise to see Paul Scholes taking over from the frustrated Cole. However, just when Arsenal were starting to look altogether more comfortable their goal fell.
There appeared little imminent danger as Cantona moved on to Linighan's headed clearance 22 yards out.
Arsenal clearly thought as much, failing to close down the Frenchman as he drew back his right foot. A vicious shot dipped over Seaman and struck the underside of the bar before nestling in the net. France must be blessed indeed if they can afford to omit him from their squad.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, May, P Neville; Giggs, Butt, Keane, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole (Scholes, 59). Substitutes not used: McClair, Beckham.
Arsenal (5-2-1-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Linighan, Marshall, Winterburn; Platt, Merson (Helder, 69); Bergkamp (Hillier, h-t); Wright, Hartson. Substitute not used: Rose.
Referee: G Willard (Worthing).
P W D L F A Pts GD
Newcastle 29 20 4 5 55 26 64 +29
Man Utd 31 19 7 5 58 30 64 +28
Liverpool 30 17 8 5 60 26 59 +34
NEWCASTLE: 23 Mar: Arsenal (a). 1 Apr: Liverpool (a). 6 Apr: QPR (h). 8 Apr: Blackburn (a). 14 Apr: Aston Villa (h). 17 Apr: Southampton (h). 27 Apr: Leeds Utd (a). 5 May: Tottenham (h). TBA: Nottingham Forest (a).
MANCHESTER UNITED: 24 Mar: Tottenham (h). 6 Apr: Manchester City (a). 8 Apr: Coventry (h). 13 Apr: Southampton (a). 17 Apr: Leeds Utd (h). 27 Apr: Nottingham Forest (h). 5 May: Middlesbrough (a).
LIVERPOOL: 23 Mar: Nottingham Forest (a). 1 Apr: Newcastle (h). 6 Apr: Coventry (a). 8 Apr: West Ham (h). 16 Apr: Everton (a). 27 Apr: Middlesbrough (h). 1 May: Arsenal (a). 5 May: Manchester City (a).