Football: Cantona cuts Newcastle's advantage

RACE FOR THE PREMIERSHIP: Schmeichel shuts out leaders as Frenchman inflicts first home defeat and closes gap to a point

Football

GLENN MOORE

Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 1

They are still top, and with a game in hand, but Newcastle United are no longer favourites. Instead it is Manchester United who appear the stronger as the tape approaches.

Last night they showed resilience and quality to shatter Newcastle's perfect home record and register their ninth successive victory, six in the Premiership.

While Eric Cantona, showing his customary sense of occasion, scored the only goal, Peter Schmeichel was the key player. He denied Newcastle over and over again during a first half in which they threatened to bury their challengers.

In the event the chances, most of which fell to Les Ferdinand, were wasted. Manchester United were not so profligate, Cantona finishing with deadly accuracy after 51 minutes. The goal changed the match irrevocably, raising questions about Newcastle's self-belief.

"I have told them if we win our game in hand we will be four points clear," Kevin Keegan said. "That is a great position to be in. If they want to know who is the best team in the country they only have to look at the tape of the first half. I did not want half-time to come. I could have watched it for 90 minutes."

Despite his brave words, Keegan's eyes looked hollow. Alex Ferguson also looked drained - but his eyes were bright with satisfaction.

Ferguson admitted he "could not wait for half-time". He added: "They were the far better side in the first half and Schmeichel made some great saves. In the second half we imposed ourselves like a Manchester United side should. We got the ball down and played.

"It is going to be an incredible finish. It gives us a chance which we did not seem to have a few weeks ago."

Keegan had given David Batty an unexpected debut in midfield. It was a bold move - he had not played a first-team game for six weeks - but a seemingly negative one.

It did not take long to dispel that misconception. Within five minutes Newcastle could have been two up and they continued to pound at their visitors for the duration of the first half.

The man responsible was Faustino Asprilla, who was making his St James' Park bow. Asprilla's arrival has been questioned but, judging by the ovation he received last night, there are no doubters on Tyneside.

Within five minutes there could have been none anywhere else, either. The Colombian settled quicker than anyone and his touch and movement was exceptional. Had Ferdinand been as sharp, Newcastle would have won. Twice he was denied in one-on-one situations by Schmeichel, first as he ran on to Asprilla's flick-on, then after Peter Beardsley and Asprilla had combined.

Next to stretch Schmeichel was Beardsley, shooting dangerously from 20 yards. Again the Dane was equal to the challenge. Then Robert Lee found Ferdinand and Manchester United just scrambled the ball away for a corner.

On Lee's return from injury, Newcastle had reverted to a flat back four. With Lee and Batty sitting deep in front of them, Cantona struggled to find space and Manchester United, whose need for the win was greater, were unable to build attacks. They did not break from their half for 13 minutes, then a Ryan Giggs cross caused momentary uncertainty.

It was a brief respite. Cantona survived a penalty appeal for handball, Gary Neville escaped another one for pushing Asprilla, and his brother Philip and Nicky Butt were both booked for fouling the Colombian.

Throughout Steve Bruce, deprived of his normal partner, Gary Pallister, through a recurrence of his back injury, manfully struggled to hold the fort. "Gary Neville was nervous to start with but Bruce was unbelievable," Ferguson said. In time Gary Neville gave stout assistance, but not before Ferdinand had missed another chance on 22 minutes.

Asprilla was brought down and Philippe Albert crashed the free-kick, from 25 yards, against the bar. From the rebound Asprilla nodded down to Ferdinand who, five yards out, volleyed over the bar. He has now scored twice in eight games - a bad time to lose form

Beardsley went close, several crosses flashed by Schmeichel's goal but, as half-time approached, the home support began to wonder whether their heroes would pay for their profligacy. Keegan thought the same: "In football, if you do not take your chances against a quality side there is always the danger they will nick one."

So it proved. Six minutes into the second half Andy Cole, who had been warmly received on his return, twisted and turned on the edge of the area before finding Philip Neville on the left. The teenager crossed perfectly to the far post where Cantona, who had escaped John Beresford, volleyed in. "He has scored a lot of important goals for us," Ferguson added.

The home side and their supporters were stunned. Both took a while to recover, during which Cole rasped a shot across the goal, Butt volleyed over, and Philip Neville shot wide when a cross seemed certain to result in a second goal.

Eventually Newcastle regained their poise and the "Toon Army" its voice. Albert headed over, Steve Howey shot wide, then Ferdinand brought another save from Schmeichel with a close-range header. But that was the only chance Newcastle created in the area and Manchester United looked the more likely scorers on the break. With Batty tiring and Lee unsure whether to defend or push forward, Roy Keane was dominant in midfield.

Newcastle persevered, but the belief had gone from the side. After this defeat, their second to Manchester United in 10 weeks, it will take all of Kevin Keegan's motivational powers to revive it.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Barton, Howey, Albert, Beresford; Beardsley, Lee, Batty, Ginola; Ferdinand, Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Watson, Clark, Gillespie.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, G Neville, P Neville; Sharpe, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: May, Scholes, Beckham.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Forest's quest, page 22

TITLE CHASERS

Premiership top three

P W D L F A Pts GD

Newcastle 28 19 4 5 52 26 61 +26

Man Utd 29 18 6 5 56 29 60 +27

Liverpool 28 16 7 5 56 24 55 +32

Remaining fixtures

NEWCASTLE: 18 Mar: West Ham (h). 23 Mar: Arsenal (a). 1 Apr: Liverpool (a). 6 Apr: QPR (h). 8 Apr: Blackburn (a). 13 Apr: Aston Villa (h). 17 Apr: Southampton (h). 27 Apr: Leeds Utd (a). 4 May: Tottenham (h). To be arranged: Nottm Forest (a).

MANCHESTER UNITED: 16 Mar: QPR (a). 24 Mar: Tottenham (h). 30 Mar: Arsenal (h). 6 Apr: Manchester City (a). 8 Apr: Coventry (h). 13 Apr: Southampton (a). 17 Apr: Leeds Utd (h). 27 Apr: Nottingham Forest (h). 4 May: Middlesbrough (a).

LIVERPOOL: 13 Mar: Wimbledon (h). 16 Mar: Chelsea (h). 19 Mar: Arsenal (a). 23 Mar: Nottingham Forest (a). 1 Apr: Newcastle (h). 6 Apr: Coventry (a). 8 Apr: West Ham (h). 13 Apr: Everton (a). 27 Apr: Middlesbrough (h). 4 May: Manchester City (a).

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