Manchester United. . .1
GLIDING between the muddy divots of White Hart Lane with the disdainful elegance of a Lippizaner, Eric Cantona yesterday answered his critic - a Mr G Graham of London N5 - with a performance that enabled Manchester United to complete the double over Tottenham Hotspur and achieve their 18th win in 26 Premiership matches this season.
Ceaselessly involved, at the heart of virtually everything that made the game worth watching, Cantona failed only to score the decisive goal, which fell to Mark Hughes early in the second half of an enthralling match. The single significant blemish on a prodigious individual performance came when he apparently strayed offside as Ian Walker, the Spurs goalkeeper, tipped Roy Keane's shot over his own head and into the net a quarter of an hour from time.
Osvaldo Ardiles must have read the comments of his North London rival George Graham yesterday with wry amusement. According to an interview in The Independent, the Arsenal manager thinks that Cantona 'will let you down at the very highest level . . . he's a cry baby when the going gets tough'.
True, Cantona was in the French team that failed to achieve the two home wins which would have sent them to the 1994 World Cup finals; granted, he also appeared in the Manchester United team that failed to overcome Galatasaray in the second round of the European Cup. But while George Graham is not in the business of winning popularity polls, the rest of the country is probably in little doubt over whether he or the enigmatic Frenchman has contributed more to the pleasure of English football lovers over the past couple of seasons.
Meanwhile, Ardiles is currently having difficulty selecting any sort of attack. In an attempt to match the four-man all-international strike force of Cantona, Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs, he was forced to field Nick Barmby and Sol Campbell as his team's twin spearhead - a couple of novices, one of them reverting to a position in which he last specialised while playing youth football.
Denied the presence of Teddy Sheringham and Jason Dozzell, two of Tottenham's better recent signings, through injury, and constrained by Alan Sugar's well-publicised insistence that the club should learn to balance its books, Ardiles had been thwarted on Friday in his efforts to sign Brett Angell, the Southend striker, who opted instead for the offer made by Mike Walker's Everton. Ardiles has pounds 600,000 to spend, but - Graham's views notwithstanding - he will be lucky to land two-thirds of a Cantona (who cost Alex Ferguson pounds 1m) with it.
Spurs were also without Eric Thorstvedt, on international duty with Norway and replaced by Ian Walker, the Everton manager's son, who was in action in the first minute as Giggs sped down the left and got the ball across for a shot by Roy Keane that bounced off the keeper's chest and was hacked to safety.
With Darren Caskey pushing up in support of the slight Barmby and the beanpole Campbell, Spurs held their own throughout a first half played at the sort of pace that so often ruins English matches, yet which is sometimes the making of those involving Manchester United, whose ability to match pace with coherence is at the root of their present domination of the Premiership.
Cantona fired a rare side-footed blank straight at Walker when Ince put him through after 10 minutes, but as the centre of the pitch cut up, it became apparent that the Frenchman's strength and balance, plus the confidence to take his time about delivering a pass, was lending United an authority to which Spurs could not aspire.
On the quarter-hour, though, Cantona mysteriously back-heeled straight to Campbell just inside the Spurs half. While the United forward stood claiming that his opponent had called for the ball, Campbell turned and made tracks for the United penalty area, where he slipped Bruce before squaring the ball straight to Pallister with Barmby waiting on the penalty spot.
Kanchelskis and Giggs were frequent raiders down the wings, their speed often carrying them clear of the beleaguered Justin Edinburgh and David Kerslake. In one of the best passages of pure football seen this season, Giggs won the ball on the edge of his own area, fed Cantona in the centre circle, and raced 60 yards to receive the return - delivered with extraordinary precision - before striking his shot against Walker's legs. Given the sheer athletic effort involved in making the run, it was hard to be too critical of the 20-year-old for failing to find the finishing touch to a move that summed up Cantona's genius.
Darren Anderton, Spurs' own starlet, sometimes emulated the technical skill of United's more experienced men, and tested Schmeichel with a couple of powerful drives from long range. But the conditions told against Tottenham's lightweights - Micky Hazard and Vinny Samways failing to find an answer to the physical authority of Ince and Keane.
The goal, four minutes after half-time, came as Cantona was putting the Spurs defence under intolerable pressure. Keane took Ince's throw-in down to the goal-line and squared a ball that Hughes, racing to the near post, squeezed between Walker and Colin Calderwood, whose leg deflected the ball into the net. It was hardly a masterpiece to set against the Welshman's astonishing goal against Sheffield United a few days earlier, but it was enough to ensure a fair result.
Hughes later went off with an ankle injury, and will be joined in the Monday-morning treatment queue by Bryan Robson, whose was due to be on the bench but injured a leg muscle in the warm-up, and by Steve Bruce, who suffered a broken rib in the first half but soldiered on, padded and strapped up, until the final whistle. This was by no means United's hardest game of the season, but their approach to the task of winning was impressive all the way from front to back. They are due to visit Highbury on 12 March - at which point, with any luck, Eric Cantona may still feel that he has something to prove.
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