Cool Cantona ignites United

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The Independent Online
Chelsea 1

Hughes 75

Manchester United 4

Scholes 3, 9, Giggs 78, McClair 85

Attendance: 31,019

IT WAS all quiet on Eric Cantona's return to London for the first time since "it" happened, all quiet except in the Chelsea defence. Inspired by Cantona's vision and passing, and put clear by Paul Scholes' finishing, Manchester United majestically swept aside a team supposedly in form after four wins in their previous five matches. United remain unbeaten in the Premiership since the opening day of the season.

Scholes struck twice inside the first 10 minutes as United overwhelmed Chelsea with an attacking triumvirate that also included Andy Cole. After Mark Hughes rounded off a rally by the home side to fulfil the tradition of the ex-player scoring against his old club, a splendid solo run by Ryan Giggs and Brian McClair's finishing of an incisive five-man move confirmed the gulf in quality. To make Chelsea's day worse, Frank Sinclair was sent off for a wild lunge at McClair two minutes from time.

An hour and a half before kick-off, Cantona sat imperiously looking down at the pointing crowds at the back of the United bus as it made its way down the Fulham Road. Inside Stamford Bridge he was first off the coach to make the 10-yard dash to the dressing room.

Afterwards he left the field, albeit wearily, with head aloft again, a key contributor to an often breathtaking performance on his 100th appearance for United. "He was always pulling the strings and making others around him look good," said the United manager, Alex Ferguson.

In between the home side greeted him with the anticipated noisy jeering, but otherwise acceptable tolerance. Not so their own team, particularly after a stunning first phase to the game. First, as Gary Neville's ball came in from the right, Cantona dummied, aware that Cole and Scholes were free behind him. Scholes duly steered home though Dmitri Kharin got his left hand to the shot. Soon came a gorgeous second. Patiently, pass after pass going through Cantona, United picked at the Chelsea defence until a hole appeared. Into it Cantona flicked a ball, his right foot like a snake's tongue, ahead of Scholes, free in the inside-right position. The 20-year-old's finishing was precise again, his venomous shot beating Kharin at his near post.

Ferguson had dropped David Beckham to accomodate both Scholes, United's leading scorer with nine, and Cantona. "We tried to get a system of one always up and one always off him," Ferguson said. It succeeded in baffling Chelsea as Cantona, roving alongside Cole and Scholes in a loose 4-3- 3 formation, continually found space.

Ruud Gullit brought some semblance of order. Fuelled by the throaty support of home fans now good and angry - "Hit him. Put him in hospital. Whatever," one voice offered as advice on how to subdue the ever energetic Roy Keane - Chelsea fashioned a spirited response. From Gullit's long ball, Paul Furlong flicked a header over the advancing Peter Schmeichel but put it wide, and Hughes forced Schmeichel into a fingertip save with a fierce shot from 25 yards.

"You know who" then slipped Scholes clear to drive a shot that, but for the crossbar, would have brought his hat-trick. Manfully, though, Gullit drove his side forward, with Hughes' muscular support and Burley's willingness. Schmeichel had to move quickly to grab the Dutchman's low shot. The pressure yielded a goal when Furlong headed down John Spencer's cross for Hughes to drive home, but United soon brushed aside the response and broke Chelsea's resistance. Or rather, Giggs did. There seemed little danger when he received the ball wide on the left but in seconds a swift run past Steve Clarke and a stab into the far corner changed the game.

It was altered irrevocably when Denis Irwin passed down the left to Keane, who touched it inside to Cantona whence it went to the willing, if misfiring, Cole. One more pass and McClair arrived to drive into the roof of the net. The 4-1 score "was a little bit of an injustice" lamented Glenn Hoddle, the Chelsea manager . A little bit less than a little bit.