Ferguson needs Cantona back on song

Glenn Moore on the shock of a 5-0 defeat for a team not used to losing
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The Independent Online
The mind began to unboggle yesterday but it will be weeks, if not months, before Newcastle United's astonishing 5-0 victory over Manchester United on Sunday can be accurately assessed.

Was it a "blip", as Alex Ferguson suggested, or a landmark. Previous experience indicates that, as far as Manchester United are concerned, it will be the former. Before Sunday they had lost twice in domestic competition this year, 4-1 at Tottenham on New Years' Day, and 3-1 at Southampton in April.

After the first defeat they embarked upon a run of 18 unbeaten matches, winning 15 of them. By the time they lost at Southampton they had chased down Newcastle's 12-point lead and were top. Between that grey day at The Dell and Sunday they went 13 further matches unbeaten domestically, lifting both the Premiership trophy and the FA Cup.

They will soon have Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville available. Keane, in particular, was badly missed at St James' Park. Assuming they defeat Fenerbahce at Old Trafford next week, they will be able to concentrate on the Premiership until March, when the Champions' League resumes.

There is, however, one real concern - Eric Cantona. Having begun the season with his customary panache, he has, of late, been quiet. There were signs in Istanbul of a return to form but he struggled to impose himself at Newcastle, and ended the game snarling and frustrated.

"In the Charity Shield we had some problems, but on Sunday he had some problems with some of our players," said Philippe Albert, Newcastle's Belgian international defender.

"I think that if he looks at the game and is honest with himself he will agree that he was really lucky to stay on the field. He seemed to be upset with all the things going on around him, especially in the second half.

"I can understand that to a degree, because I had the same sort of feelings when we were being beaten at Wembley. The difference was that we didn't start trying to kick people."

Neither Cantona, nor his team-mates, are used to defeat. One side-effect of this is that they are not well equipped to handle being behind, which means when they do lose they do so heavily.

They did come back from being 2-0 down against Everton this season, but Sunday's collapse, though dramatic, was more typical. Before the defeats at Tottenham and Southampton (where they trailed 3-0 at half-time) they had been defeated 3-1 by Aston Villa (also 3-0 at half-time) and 3-1 at home to York, albeit with a weakened side. The previous season there was the 4-0 in Barcelona and a 3-1 in IFK Gothenburg.

One reason is that Manchester United, like Newcastle, are not the sort of team to settle for damage limitation. On Sunday the defensive shape went as players pushed forward in search of a reply, any reply. The marking became haphazard and the passing inaccurate as decisions were rushed.

And yet, had Karel Poborsky scored with a free header early in the second half, the champions might have salvaged something. Until the third goal there was a fragility about Newcastle, the crowd sensed, or, rather, communicated this to the team. The relief when Les Ferdinand finally scored was immense.

This victory should dissolve some of that fragility. The clean sheet was important, and it should increase defensive confidence throughout the team. Now they must ensure they build on Sunday.

Within minutes of the final whistle, some pessimistic Newcastle fans were saying: "I bet they go and lose to Leicester [on Saturday] now." Victory would equal Manchester United's Premiership record of eight successive wins (Wimbledon also have that target in sight).

Of course, there is another factor in the championship equation: Liverpool. They will have looked at Sunday's match and wondered what might have happened at Old Trafford a week earlier had their cutting edge, Robbie Fowler, not been injured.

The postponement of the Merseyside derby, and their progress in the European Cup-Winners' Cup, has created a fixture backlog. Four matches now need rearranging. Is this a problem - or just another indication that the old days are returning to Anfield? Liverpool go to Newcastle on 23 December.

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