Football: A classic chip off the old Cantona

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Manchester United 5

Solskjaer 35, 48, Cantona 43 pen, 80

Butt 59

Sunderland 0

Attendance: 55,081

Manchester United have had their peaks and troughs lately, but they surged back on to an upward path with their biggest win of the season yesterday, putting them within six points of the Premiership leaders, Liverpool, and emphasising something which has tended be overlooked: this is their title, and taking it off them will not be easy, irrespective of Continental distractions.

For the next two and a half months, United can concern themselves exclusively with matters at home, and if they can maintain this sort of form while rivals continue to drop points the possibility of a domestic/European double could well be a realistic one when they resume Champions' Cup activity in the quarter-final against Porto in early March.

Four goals in a 22-minute spell either side of half-time, two of them from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ripped the heart out of a Sunderland team who had hopes of reproducing the display with which they had very nearly knocked United out of the third round of the FA Cup here last season. But after an opening half-hour in which their tight, organised football proved more than an irritant to a United side anxious to win again after two successive draws, their limitations were exposed. Eric Cantona, having earlier scored from the penalty spot, added a festive touch with a peerless strike 10 minutes from the end, thus registering his first Premiership goals since the middle of September.

Once United were into their stride, superior speed and movement meant that Sunderland were always chasing the game. Stringing good results together has been a problem for them in spite of a respectable overall showing on their return to the Premiership this season, and their 3-0 win over Chelsea last Sunday now looks like another misleading result.

"We got taught a really good lesson today by a side that had pace all over," Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, said. "You've got to concentrate for 90 minutes against them even when you've got the ball, because they break so quickly."

That was not the case to begin with. United's five-man defence - the Neville brothers flanking Gary Pallister, David May and Denis Irwin - took time to settle, and Sunderland had the better of the openings. But then the United goals started to flow.

Reid claimed the first "came out of the blue", but that was a slight exaggeration. With David Beckham on the substitutes' bench for the second match running, Nicky Butt was to the fore in central midfield, and United had begun to wrest control when Solskjaer opened the scoring in the 36th minute.

Ryan Giggs crossed from the left, Paul Scholes hit a first-time shot from the edge of the area, and Solskjaer headed in after Lionel Perez, Sunderland's French goalkeeper, had allowed the ball to rebound off his body. Perez was at fault again with the second, two minutes before half- time, when he brought down Butt, and Cantona tucked the penalty low inside the left-hand post.

Pallister's failure to re-emerge for the second half hardly mattered once a breakaway goal by Solskjaer from a throw-out by Schmeichel had made it 3-0 within three minutes. Butt headed in from Giggs's corner in the 58th minute before, 10 minutes from time, Cantona put his second past Perez with a wonderful chip after a bewildering run through the Sunderland defence, aided by a one-two with Brian McClair.

Alex Ferguson declined to meet the Press afterwards, instead sending the message that he was "taking his winter break from you lot", and that the result spoke for itself. That was United's final touch of class.