Football: Bravura Cantona the conductor in United cantata: Wednesday on the end of a walloping

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TREVOR FRANCIS raised eyebrows all over the Continent a fortnight ago when he described Manchester United as the best team in Europe. Nothing that happened last night will have altered the Sheffield Wednesday manager's opinion.

In theory Wednesday should have been bristling with intent, determined to make amends for their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final rout at Hillsborough. Instead, they were overwhelmed in what Alex Ferguson described as United's best performance of the season. Four times they have met the champions and the aggregate score is 13-3 against them.

In none of the previous three meetings have United played better as they moved seven points clear in the Premiership with a display that was as devastating as the scoreline suggests. The team of Best, Law and Charlton rarely created as much mayhem as this.

At the centre of it all was Eric Cantona. The Frenchman has been a huge influence at Old Trafford all season but last night he orchestrated the whole performance. He carried a revolver in his general's knapsack, too, scoring the fourth and fifth goals. The early damage had been done by Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince.

Wednesday had made a minus sign look positive when they played at Old Trafford last month, Francis reasoning that to take the game to United would lay his side open to the counter-attack. The four centre- backs in the visiting line-up did not suggest a change of heart.

A team full of hulking six-footers would have been hard put, however, to halt United during the blistering eight-minute spell in the first half that won the match. The opening had been dominated by Wednesday - Andy Pearce and Andy Sinton were both narrowly wide - but that proved to be the greatest of deceptions.

After 13 minutes, Cantona received the ball on the right, waited for just the right moment and then released Giggs with a through ball of 50 yards. The Welsh winger outpaced Roland Nilsson and then shot past the advancing Kevin Pressman.

If that was an immaculately executed goal it was overshadowed totally by United's second. Cantona flicked on with his head and Hughes thundered a volley from a distance of fully 30 yards. The United striker is not one for stroking the ball home at any time but he can surely have never hit a shot harder.

Ince pounced for the third with a turn and shot after 21 minutes, preparing the stage for Cantona. He strode it like a Shakespearian hero.

He struck just before half-time after Ince had pierced the Wednesday defence and after 55 minutes he completed a nine-pass move. He started it with a sweeping pass to the right and then concluded it by accepting Ince's pass from the right, dummying to shoot and then finding the net via a post. That took his tally to 20 goals this season.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis (Robson, 70), Keane, Ince, Giggs (McClair, h/t); Hughes, Cantona. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Sheffield Wednesday (5-4-1): Pressman; Nilsson (Watson, 27), Pearce, Watts, Walker, Coleman; Poric, Bart-Williams, King, Sinton; Bright. Substitutes not used: Jemson, Woods (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).

Toshack's exit,

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