Cantona papers over cracks in United's defence

Manchester United 4 Nottingham Forest 1
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Alex Ferguson was not convinced. The score was convincing and the performance diverting after the chastisement in Italy, but United's manager was transparently aware that to compare injury weakened Nottingham Forest with Juventus would be to contrast Schumacher's Ferrari with a Minardi.

His reserved satisfaction at a "satisfying game that we dominated with some superb football in the last 20 minutes" was entirely justified because the previous 70 contained a lot of evidence that while retaining their Premiership title is clearly feasible, all the time teams in trouble, as Forest so obviously were, can divest the United defence of its authority, the higher European aims look frail.

Ferguson was clearly uneasy when it was revealed that Barcelona had suggested that the negotiations over Miguel Nadal had broken down. The way Dean Saunders and the much maligned Jason Lee had extended Ronny Johnsen and Gary Pallister in the early stages after Alf Inge Haland had given Forest a lead in the third minute was an uncomfortable message that will further hearten United's future European opponents.

The key to United's recovery and eventual comfort was Ferguson's acceptance that Eric Cantona may be a bit of a poet but there is no rhyme nor reason why he should be used as a solo striker, as he was for a time in Turin. His art is invention from which strikers can strike. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was always exciting, did just that after United's first 20 minutes of unease with Forest's counter-attacking. Cantona threaded a teasing pass into the penalty area, leaving Stuart Pearce indecisive, and Solskjaer swept in his shot.

Once Denis Irwin had saved off the line from Colin Cooper and Karel Poborsky had begun to add audacity to speed, United shook off the shadow of Juve. Cantona started to retrieve his natural effrontery, back heeling to Poborsky, whose centre the too-often subdued Ryan Giggs headed in.

For Forest it was a matter of avoiding a repetition of the previous season's 5-0 defeat. Once Saunders had been denied a breakaway goal for offside, Cantona realised that Forest were only limiting the damage, which was impossible since he kept inflicting more.

A free-kick tapped into his path by Giggs brought about a fine shot in off the post, then there was a penalty in injury time after Poborsky's pace caused panic in the Forest defence. It was a pity he saved his best match of the week till last.

Goals: Haland (3) 0-1; Solskjaer (21) 1-1; Giggs (42) 2-1; Cantona (82) 3-1; Cantona pen (90) 4-1.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, Irwin; Poborsky, Beckham, Butt (McClair, 41), Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer (Cole, 75). Substitutes not used: May, Cruyff, Van Der Gouw.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Cooper, Chettle, Lyttle, Pearce; Haland, Phillips, Bart-Williams, Woan (Allen, 74); Lee, Saunders (Roy, 78). Substitutes not used: Fettis, Gemmill, Jerkan.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Nottingham Forest: Woan, Bart-Williams.

Man of the match: Cantona.

Attendance: 54,984.