Cantona rescues ragged United

Manchester United 1 Coventry City 0 RACE FOR THE PREMIERSHIP: Frenchman makes the difference again after Coventry's Busst suffers horrific broken leg

GUY HODGSON

Manchester United 1 Coventry City 0

No win at this stage should be derided but this was not an occasion that Manchester United will cherish come the end of the season. The three points will be, though, even if the gauntlet they flung down in Newcastle's direction landed with the softest of touches.

This was a ragged performance from the Premiership leaders who, disrupted by injury and suspension, flitted between the inspired and mundane. The fact there was only one goal will reflect which part of their character won out in the end. Indeed Coventry, desperate for points, might have embarrased them with a goal of their own at the end.

Almost inevitably it was Eric Cantona who provided the game's one sure touch in front of goal. The Frenchman is conducting the nearest thing to a one-man crusade to win the title and he got the strike again two minutes after half-time. It is his seventh in eight matches and the fifth time in that period that his has been the one goal scored by United.

Few have been as simple as this. Ryan Giggs, a rare untarnished United success, crossed low from the left and the ball arrived in the six-yard box via Liam Daish's heel and the bodies of Paul Williams and Andy Cole. Cantona, after waiting what seemed to be an age, side-footed past Ogrizovic.

It was the high point of a game that was like United, good and bad in parts. The most fluent spell arrived when the players' minds had been distracted by an horrific injury to David Busst. The Coventry defender, challenging at the far post after 90 seconds, appeared to go over on his leg, and as soon as he collapsed to the floor it was obvious he was seriously injured.

Even Old Trafford, which is not known for charity towards visiting players, suspended hostility to applaud Busst as he was carried from the field, a dark bloodstain left on the pitch where he fell. He did not go back to the dressing-room but straight to hospital where it was later revealed he had a compound fracture of the right leg.

"It was horrible," Ron Atkinson, the Coventry manager, said. "All the players say it was dreadful and they are distressed. The result matters, but now we are more concerned about David."

United's goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who was closest to the injured man as he was being treated, declined to speak to the press. "I couldn't talk about the incident," his message said. "I would just break down."

Both teams were affected by the injury and for 20 minutes barely a tackle was made. Paradoxically, Coventry, who pulled Williams back into the back four, prospered more, and they created opportunities that, had they been taken, would have given the game a different complexion.

After 15 minutes Noel Whelan eluded United's offside trap, burst down the left and was halted only by Peter Schmeichel's dive to his left. Dublin was close with a header, too, and John Salako' left-foot shot after 31 minutes would have been better if it had been further away from the goal as Whelan was charging towards the far post.

You cannot afford to give United chances like this and as they recovered their composure they began to pin Coventry in their area. Andy Cole had three chances, Brian McClair was just wide with a lunging shot and David Beckham shot high over when faced by only Steve Ogrizovic. They might have got five goals; then again they might have been held to a draw.

After 75 minutes Dublin headed delicately into Kevin Richardson's path who, but for a bad bounce, would have been bearing down on United's goal. With two minutes remaining the Coventry skipper outflanked the red rearguard on the left but his shot sliced into the side-netting.

"We created so many chances," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said, "and we almost paid for them in the last 20 minutes when we seemed to stop dead. But if you win your two matches over Easter you have done well."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, G Neville, May, Sharpe; Beckham, Butt, McClair, Giggs; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Parker, Bruce, Scholes.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Pickering, Busst (Boland, 4), Daish, Salako; Telfer (Jess, 70), Richardson, Williams, Ndlovu; Dublin, Whelan. Substitute not used: Filan.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

More reports, page 22

Results and tables, page 23

The difference an Eric can make

Eric Cantona has scored in seven out of Manchester United's last eight games. The only match in this run that he did not score in was the FA Cup semi-final, against Chelsea on 1 April, which Manchester United won 2-1.

4 March v Newcastle United (A) W 1-0

11 March v Southampton (H) W 2-0

(FA Cup sixth round, Cantona scored first goal)

16 March v Queen's Park Rangers (A) D 1-1

20 March v Arsenal (H) W 1-0

24 March v Tottenham Hotspur (H) W 1-0

6 April v Manchester City (A) W 3-2

(Cantona scored first goal from penalty spot)

8 April v Coventry City (H) W 1-0

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