Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
A RIVETING match with two splendid goals and the perfect result. For Norwich. A week after the hooliganism of Maine Road, Manchester redeemed itself yesterday, when the country's top teams proved that pace and skill are not incompatible.
Unfortunately for United, the leaders, and Villa, who trail them only on goal difference, the principal beneficiaries of an afternoon with no winner to take all were sitting in front of the gogglebox, rubbing their hands with glee.
Sky's audience had a rare treat, but none will have enjoyed it more than Norwich City. The dark horses picked up a couple of points on the more fancied runners, both of whom still have to visit Carrow Road, by beating Oldham 1-0 on Saturday. Suddenly no one is calling the championship a two-horse race any more.
Not Alex Ferguson, who says it is high time East Anglia's finest came under the same pressure as the top two. And certainly not Ron Atkinson, who goes so far as to suggest that Sheffield Wednesday are also in contention.
Atkinson was the happier manager last night. He usually is, of course, but a draw at Old Trafford was a good result, and the performance behind it gave him good reason for satisfaction.
Villa were under the cosh for long spells, but they defended with spirit and discipline and broke out to telling effect. They were particularly well served by Mark Bosnich, their Australian goalkeeper, who was at Old Trafford for a spell, and would have signed for United but for their inability to secure a work permit.
Bosnich, who has kept five clean sheets in eight games since displacing Nigel Spink made top-notch saves to thwart Ryan Giggs (twice), Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin when United's clever interplay got the better of a resolute back four.
Villa also had their chances, contributing in full measure to a game which somehow managed to live up to all that hype and hullabaloo. Dean Saunders had Peter Schmeichel at full stretch early on, and should have scored with a volley midway through the first half. Ray Houghton and Kevin Richardson also went close.
Goalscoring opportunities and incidents came thick and fast in a pell-mell match which was fiercely competitive yet played in exemplary spirit. The mood of an afternoon which will have done nothing but good for the game's reputation and morale was exemplified midway through the second half, when Villa, under pressure, gambled on three points rather than settling for one by bringing off a midfield player, Garry Parker, in favour of Tony Daley, their renascent England winger.
Typical Atkinson, that, and all credit to him. Even more credit to United, who did the lion's share of the attacking, and did it with a style which had the attendant oldies - Best, Law and Crerand - purring with appreciation.
A nice contrast was to be found in midfield, where Villa's specialists held sway. Atkinson favours experts - Parker, Houghton and that most eager of beavers, Kevin Richardson. United appear not to subscribe to the old adage about where games are won and lost, and play only one specialist, Paul Ince, assisted by a converted striker, Brian McClair, and two wingers dropping back to help out.
For a time, it seemed that orthodoxy would carry the day, Villa driving forward crisply, and with mounting conviction, from deep.
It was United, though, who had the flair and imagination, Cantona strutting his stuff and bringing what he calls his 'fantasy' to the game with those delightful touches and flicks and that immaculate close control. Set up by Ince's square pass, the Frenchman would have scored after seven minutes but for Bosnich's elastic reach.
Saunders replied immediately with a shot which Schmeichel did well to repel, and battle was well and truly joined. Lee Sharpe hit the crossbar from 10 yards, McClair was just wide with head and boot and Bosnich saved impressively from Giggs and Irwin.
All that was missing was goals, and when they finally arrived they came like buses, two together.
The one with which Staunton gave Villa the lead, after 54 minutes, was a classic of its kind, thumped in left-footed from 20 yards. United's equaliser, three minutes later, came from less spectacular range, but was no less compelling for that, Cantona's far post nod helping Irwin's cross to Mark Hughes, who claimed his 14th goal of the season with a characteristically emphatic header.
One-all is how it stayed, and was just about right. Ferguson was 'a bit disappointed', feeling his team had 'made enough good opportunities to have won the game', but, like the rest of us, he preferred to concentrate on the positive aspects of a match which portrayed British football at its best. 'A great game, played in good spirits,' he said. 'The way my team are playing, I'm quite happy to watch them. In the hurly- burly of the modern game, they are a breath of fresh air.'
True, but then so too are Villa. And, of course, Norwich.
Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Robson, Sealey (gk), Kanchelskis.
Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker (Daley, 66), Saunders, Yorke, Small. Substitutes not used: Cox, Spink (gk).
Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey).
Football, page 30