Cantona's cruel way to the top

QPR 1 Irwin 63 og Manchester United 1 Cantona 90 Attendance: 18,817
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The Independent Online
IN THEORY, with Manchester United chasing the Championship, this should scarcely have been a contest. In the glorious uncertainty of reality, with survival as potent motivation, Queen's Park Rangers stood the league table on its head before a goal by Eric Cantona in the third minute of injury time rescued a point for them and squeezed them to the top of the Premiership on goal difference.

Poor Rangers, whose chances of staying up receded further. Grittily they had clung on to a lead after being outplayed in the first half and it seemed Newcastle and Liverpool would also be celebrating their victory. Then Cantona popped up to head home Ryan Giggs's cross and it was United who were celebrating.

The portents for Queen's Park Rangers were not good; without a home win for three months - without one over United since 1988 - and with only one victory in their last 11 matches. United, on the other hand, arrived on a run of 10 consecutive wins.

The contrast was soon apparent, though QPR showed themselves ready for the battle with an aggressive opening in which Simon Barker and Ian Holloway snapped at the heels of Roy Keane and Brian McClair.

A better first touch from Trevor Sinclair might have seen him in for a shot at Peter Schmeichel, who was troubled soon after by Danny Dichio's header from Nigel Quashie's cross. Barker then headed Holloway's corner over the bar.

After this first flush, however, United's self-assurance began to assert itself. Some neat passing movements, often instigated by Cantona and carried on by Giggs's effervescent running, frequently pulled Rangers out of shape and their defence was left exposed by a midfield who were struggling to cope.

Giggs's run past David Bardsley and a shot that Jurgen Sommer beat out was the first glimpse of United's threat and chances followed at regular intervals. Cantona split the home defence with a cross-field pass that David Beckham turned goalwards, Sommer pushing it aside.

It was remarkable how Rangers survived to the interval, Sommer producing some of his best form of the season. Giggs sent in McClair, only for the American goalkeeper to save at his feet, and Sommer then halted another Giggs run.

Rangers brought on Andy Impey to replace Quashie at the start of the second half and his pace on the right immediately disconcerted and pressurised United, with Denis Irwin pleading from left-back for help.

Impey himself went close with a powerful drive from 20 yards, Schmeichel happy to see the ball sail just over his bar. Then the keeper gathered with relief when Kevin Gallen turned the ball into his arms after Dichio had headed down Holloway's corner.

That United were uncomfortable under pressure was evident when David May, replacing the injured Gary Pallister, up-ended Sinclair and was booked, along with Dichio, for protesting.

United brought on Paul Scholes in an attempt to win the match. Instead he was soon being asked to save it as Rangers took the lead their second-half showing deserved.

United, dragged to the left to counter Impey and Sinclair, left themselves open on the right and Holloway found Dichio in space. From the edge of the area he curled a shot past Schmeichel, Irwin inadvertently heading the ball into the net in trying to clear. Now the roles were reversed with United feeling the desperation, until Cantona breathed their late sigh of relief.