Football: Cantona drives Norwich to distraction: Manchester United re-emphasise their championship credentials with a flowing show of force to squeeze the life out of their title rivals

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Norwich City . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

MAGNIFICENT United made nonsense of the theory that they are a team riddled with nerves on the championship approach last night as they unleashed a devastating display of powerful, purposeful football topped off by three goals in a spell- binding eight-minute period. If they are all of a wobble, then it is Aston Villa's turn to get the shakes after watching this cool dismantling of a Norwich side who have kept up their end of the title argument for so long but will do well to come back from this.

The class chasm between second and third was vast, the disparity in the power and potency evident from start to finish, the contest finished by the 21st minute as United rattled in their third of this productive period. What it all means is that the men from Manchester overtake the Canaries to move up on Villa's heels just one point behind. It could also be said that the momentum has swung back in their favour; in this rich vein of form they are simply the best.

Not surprisingly, Alex Ferguson was a delighted manager afterwards. 'Some of our football was breathtaking, unbelievable stuff,' he said. 'We deserved the result and the scoreline will not have done us any harm in respect of goal difference. With six games left it's getting exciting.'

He had declared in advance that now was the time 'for those who would be champions' to start winning games. 'We have to be bold from now on,' he said.

He was thinking not only of United's failure to win in their previous four games which had gathered together the prophets of doom forecasting another Old Trafford foul-up but also of Norwich's victory over Villa here 12 days ago. If they could do what Villa had failed to do at Carrow Road the rewards could be immense by 8 May.

Ferguson's team mirrored his ambition: surprisingly Bryan Robson remained on the bench as Andrei Kanchelskis was preferred in place of the suspended Mark Hughes. With the flying Ukrainian winger in harness with Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe the pace was frightening and Norwich were frightened to distraction.

They began with sights set on a second successive upset and the early action encouraged them as they had a claim for a penalty denied when Mark Robins appeared to be checked by Gary Pallister.

However, very quickly those favourable impressions had been submerged by the speed and accuracy of the red surge coming their way. After 12 minutes a move that started with Peter Schmeichel's throw to Sharpe ended with Eric Cantona releasing Giggs for a solo run. The opening was meat and drink to the young Welsh wizard and he had no trouble rounding Bryan Gunn to score.

Seven minutes later it was Kanchelskis's turn to show his heels as Brian McClair delivered a superb ball into his stride which quickly took him clear of the trailing defenders. This time the hapless Norwich goalkeeper was beaten on his other side.

There was more to come and it came only after another 55 seconds. Once again the Norwich midfield obliged with no semblance of a challenge impeding Paul Ince's run on and through their defensive lines before supplying an angled pass to the waiting Cantona to drive home.

Norwich benefited from the introduction of their new pounds 750,000 striker Efan Ekoku and his physical presence disturbed Steve Bruce and Pallister for the first time. In the 61st minute Ruel Fox found room to pick out Robins for a goal against his old club.

Robson, belatedly, was given a run and his eagerness for a say in this race was revealed in a series of characteristic, wincing challenges the last of which earned him a yellow card for a two-footed tackle on Ian Crook. As the players milled around menacingly Ince was also booked.

Norwich City: Gunn; Culverhouse, Bowen, Sutton, Polston, Megson (Ekoku, 57), Crook, Goss, Robins, Fox, Phillips. Substitutes not used: Power, Walton (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Kanchelskis (Robson, 72), Giggs. Substitutes not used: Dublin, Sealey (gk).

Referee: A Ward (London).

----------------------------------------------------------------- PREMIER LEAGUE TOP THREE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Aston Villa . . . . . . .36 19 10 7 52 33 67 Manchester Utd . . . . . 36 18 12 6 54 28 66 Norwich City . . . . . . 37 19 8 10 51 52 65 ----------------------------------------------------------------- REMAINING FIXTURES: ----------------------------------------------------------------- ASTON VILLA: 10 April Coventry (h); 12 Arsenal (a); 18 Manchester City (h); 21 Blackburn (a); 2 May Oldham (h); 8 QPR (a). MANCHESTER UNITED: 10 April Sheffield Wed (h); 12 Coventry (a); 17 Chelsea (h); 21 Crystal Palace (a); 3 May Blackburn (h); 8 Wimbledon (a). NORWICH: 9 April Tottenham (a); 14 Leeds (h); 19 Ipswich (a); 1 May Liverpool (h); 8 Middlesbrough (a). -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)