Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0
ALEX FERGUSON'S words to his team that the win at Liverpool would mean nothing if they lost at Oldham proved prophetic in this classic upset before a feverishly excited crowd last night.
Though the bottom team beat the top, thanks to a 26th-minute goal from Neil Adams, this was not one of those wobbly performances by United when they lost their nerve during the run-in to the championship last season. Following on from Saturday's 2-1 win at Anfield, the effort was there, the defence made one error of marking and the attack swarmed continuously around the Oldham area, but by the end they had gone close only once, a chip by Brian McClair that hit the crossbar.
Oldham, still relegation probables despite this hugely inspiring victory, have always been capable of raising their level of performance against distinguished visitors. Some years ago the plastic pitch was blamed regularly as the illuminati fled the mill chimneys muttering about artificial surfaces. Oldham, once on song, are a formidable proposition when a capacity Boundary Park crowd get behind them and this was one of those great Oldham nights.
They marked Ryan Giggs, McClair and Paul Ince tightly, not always fairly, but certainly ferociously, Mark Hughes almost never got goal-side of Richard Jobson, while Andrei Kanchelskis, given two of the three chances to come United's way, fired one straight at Paul Gerrard and the other over the angle.
United simply could not make headway against a defence who had conceded 55 League goals. Not that the red shirts could be faulted for work rate. Three corners followed quickly, the middle one producing a ferocious scramble on Oldham's six-yard line but the kick to clear came from an Oldham boot.
Exasperated, Ferguson took off Kanchelskis and sent on Dion Dublin for his first appearance since breaking a leg in September, but Oldham had planned for that, too, immediately replacing Neil Pointon with Steve Redmond.
United have been slow starters this year; at Liverpool they could have been two goals down in the first half-hour. They made a similar patchy start last night, not a nervous one, but if anything too confident that their speed and firepower would be too much for Oldham.
They might have been right, too, but for Adams. Mark Brennan took Oldham's first corner and Adams timed his run for the far post exactly. The corner evaded Peter Schmeichel's leap, the goalkeeper under challenge by Jobson, and United's far-post defenders seemed to catch sight of the ball too late to prevent Adams from leaping above them and heading into the net. The jubilation could have been heard for miles. Those Oldham fans who had given pounds 25 to the touts to stand thought the money well spent.
After that Oldham planted a dark-blue thicket across the front of their penalty area, double and treble marked the most advanced United forward, operated a smoothly sprung offside trap and every once in a while gave Ian Olney a long ball to chase through a stretched United defence to take the pressure off their tenacious defenders.
Joe Royle's team have now given Aston Villa the chance to regain the leadership tonight unless Spurs can return the compliment to Ferguson.
For United their home match against Villa on Sunday now has a double significance: they must win not only for the points but to regain their own sense of superiority and confidence and allay the growing anxiety this defeat will bring to their support.
It will be a different United; Eric Cantona returns after a two- match suspension. The one similarity between United last night and United last April was the lack of imagination around the opposing goal area. Cantona never lacks ideas.
Oldham Athletic: Gerrard; Halle, Pointon (Redmond, 75), Henry, Jobson, Fleming, Adams, Bernard, Olney, Milligan, Brennan. Substitutes not used: Palmer, Keeley (gk).
Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Kanchelskis (Dublin, 73), Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Phelan, Sealey (gk).
Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).
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