Cantona steps up to bring United justice

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The Independent Online


Nottingham Forest 1 Manchester United 1

Eric Cantona, who is reputed to have an exaggerated sense of injustice, ensured that Manchester United did not suffer one at the City Ground last night. His penalty, midway through the second half of a compelling spectacle, nullified Paul McGregor's goal for Nottingham Forest at a similar stage in the first half.

In the end, the only winners were the capacity crowd and Newcastle, whose lead over United at the top of the Premiership was trimmed by only one point to five. Although Alex Ferguson was left to reflect ruefully on the brilliance and bravery of the Forest goalkeeper, Mark Crossley, he knew that a modicum of composure by the teenaged substitute Richard Irving in the final seconds would have condemned his side to defeat.

Forest, who remain undefeated against United under Frank Clark, were nonetheless entitled to derive great satisfaction from the outcome. They had, after all, lost their previous domestic fixture 7-0 at Blackburn, and went into the match without any of their four first-choice strikers. Yet in a curious way, they dominated the match tactically by massing behind the ball and playing on the break.

Crossley, who had a loan spell at Old Trafford five years ago, recently declared himself for Scotland, the country of a grandmother's birth. Chauvinist Englishmen with selective memories might argue that his current form makes him over-qualified, and he started this match with a smothering save from Andy Cole after Ryan Giggs had put the Nottingham- born forward clear.

David Beckham, with a goalbound drive that Stuart Pearce blocked with his body, and Nicky Butt, sending one shot over and another wide, might also have rewarded United's early ascendancy. If, however, they envisaged a repetition of last week's four-goal canter at Coventry, Forest's 19th- minute breakthrough must have come as a rude awakening.

An innocuous through-ball by Colin Cooper was turned into a defence-splitting pass by Brian McClair. One striker starting a game for the first time, Bobby Howe, saw his shot break off Gary Pallister to another, McGregor, who swept home his second Premiership goal from 10 yards.

Giggs, looking marginally offside, soon fired against an upright with only Crossley to beat, while Ian Woan's corner dropped against United's far post on the stroke of half-time.

The move of the night came two minutes after the interval. It was initiated by Cantona's sumptuous back-heeled ball to Giggs, and carried on by the Frenchman's 30-yard sprint for the return pass. Forced wide by Crossley, Cantona still managed a teasing cross which Cole met cleanly. Crossley not only beat out the header, but plunged at Paul Scholes's feet as the substitute followed up.

Crossley's resistance was finally broken in the 67th minute, after Scholes released Cantona to run at Forest inside their area. There was still work to do before it could be termed a clear scoring opportunity, but Steve Chettle seemed panicked and tripped him from behind.

Cantona picked himself up to stroke the penalty to the keeper's right as he dived left - his second goal from the spot since resuming active service nine games ago. To their immense credit, neither side settled for a point: even after Crossley had gone full stretch to tip aside Cole's shot on the turn with three minutes left, Irving contrived to head wide from a centre by the outstanding Chris Bart-Williams.

The abiding memory, though, will be of two teams trusting entirely in the finer arts, and of one man's defiance. With Peter Schmeichel entering hospital today for surgery on a persistent elbow injury, and likely to miss two games, Ferguson has all the more reason to wish he had made Crossley's move permanent.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Cooper, Chettle, Pearce; Stone, Gemmill, Bart-Williams, Woan; McGregor (Haaland, 73), Howe (Irving, 88). Substitute not used: Phillips.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham (Sharpe, 81), Butt, McClair (Scholes, h-t), Giggs; Cantona; Cole. Substitute not used: P Neville.

Referee: K Cooper (Mid-Glamorgan).

P W D L F A Pts

Newcastle 15 12 2 1 33 11 38

Man Utd 15 10 3 2 32 14 33

Arsenal 15 8 4 3 21 10 28

Aston Villa 15 8 3 4 19 11 27

Tottenham 15 7 5 3 22 17 26

Middlesbrough 15 7 5 3 14 9 26

Nottm Forest 14 6 7 1 24 21 25