Cantona rekindles the fires

Blackburn Rovers 2 McKinlay 34, Warhurst 88 Manchester United 3 Cole 32, Scholes 43, Cantona 80 Attendance: 30,476
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Alex Ferguson can look forward to a week without sleepless nights before setting his alarm for an early shift in the visitors' dug-out at Anfield on Saturday. After the Derby and Dortmund defeats, and the restless twilight hour or two that doubtless followed, the Manchester United manager watched the stuff of dreams yesterday. Fired by Andy Cole, as hot as he was in his good old days in black and white, United turned up the heat in the race for their Premiership crown, maintaining a three- point lead on Arsenal and moving six clear of Liverpool, who play at Sunderland today.

In doing so they scorched Blackburn more deeply than the one-goal margin would suggest to those not among the 30,000 at Ewood Park. Rovers' honorary vice-president was one notable absentee. "Don't associate me with that woman," Ferguson once snapped at a television interviewer who pointed out that, like him, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven needed only five hours of sleep. There was little at Blackburn yesterday to associate "that woman's" team with their arch championship rivals of old.

United were so much a class apart that they could afford to ease up after a bewitching first-half performance in which Cole was back to his incisive best. He opened the scoring, set up Paul Scholes and provided the killer goal for Eric Cantona in the 80th minute. "They were lucky, weren't they?" Tony Parkes said. "No," the Blackburn caretaker added, "the scoreline flattered the match. At least we were beaten by the best team in England."

It was a personal triumph for Ferguson, who chose not to restrict the reshuffling of his playing pack to the enforced replacement of Ryan Giggs with Cole and Denis Irwin with Phil Neville. David Beckham paid for his off-night on the Ruhr with a bench berth in the Ribble Valley as Ferguson placed Paul Scholes at the apex of his midfield formation, with Cole, Cantona and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer up front.

United had a fresh, attacking look about them from the start and Gary Pallister and Roy Keane both struck the woodwork before Cantona had a poorly struck penalty saved by Tim Flowers after Nicky Butt fell under a challenge from Jeff Kenna in the 22nd minute. The Frenchman's last penalty miss, at Elland Road in September, was followed by an exhibition 4-0 triumph, and there was a sense of deja vu when Cole broke through 10 minutes later. On the ground, and with three defenders surrounding him, Cole threaded a low shot past Flowers. Blackburn were stirred to life, Billy McKinlay beating Raimond Van der Gouw with a bobbling shot from 30 yards out, but United's incisive play regained them the lead three minutes before half-time.

Cole slid the ball to the unmarked Scholes, who rifled it past Flowers from the right edge of the box. United switched to cruise control thereafter - until the 80th minute, when Cole danced through the defence and cut the ball back for Cantona to tap in. Paul Warhurst reduced the deficit with three minutes left and Van der Gouw was called upon to save from Per Pedersen in the dying seconds but the gulf between the teams was as wide as it may yet be next season.

These are worrying times for the English manager who enjoyed success on the European front in midweek. The Milan derby will not be the only concern on Roy Hodgson's mind today. As Parkes said of Blackburn's manager- in-waiting: "I just hope he's going to bring a minibus full of players with him."

One player Ferguson is sure to have with him on the trip down the East Lancs Road on Saturday is the man who inadvertently won the title for Blackburn on their last-day defeat at Anfield two years ago. It has taken Cole some time to recover from the Hammer blow of his late misses at Upton Park that day. But yesterday he hammered home a message that was received with loud clarity by his boss. "I don't think you'll see Andy out of the team from now," Ferguson said before heading off for a good night's rest.