Football: Cantona in command

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Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Cantona 40, 45

Manchester City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Attendance: 44,333

ERIC CANTONA returned to a sunlit Old Trafford yesterday with a pair of goals that repaired Manchester United's frayed nerves and gave them a three-point lead in the Premiership, with four matches to play. Blackburn Rovers, their championship challengers, have a chance to draw level again when they meet Queen's Park Rangers at Ewood Park this afternoon, but United's confidence will be high for their vital trip to Leeds on Wednesday.

This was a Manchester derby in which both sides attempted to play adventurous and expansive football, and after United's recent chapter of accidents it proved exactly the kind of game to help them rediscover the qualities that illuminated their football earlier in the season. With Cantona, Lee Sharpe and Roy Keane replacing Brian McClair, Ryan Giggs and Bryan Robson, United looked more or less a championship side again, comfortable in all phases of the game. Only in the last five minutes, when three of their players were booked - Paul Ince for dissent, Cantona for an overenthusiastic tackle on Uwe Rosler and Keane for an elbow in Keith Curle's face - did the 44,333 crowd see signs of stress.

Alex Ferguson had remarked that Cantona's rentree would 'calm United down a bit', and the Frenchman's presence soon had its effect. Before the match, Terry Phelan - left out of the City defence - promised that his colleagues would 'wind Eric up left, right and centre', queueing up to 'take a bite out of him'. Unsurprisingly, Steve McMahon was the first in line, rewarded after five minutes with an instant yellow card.

Showing no obvious signs of his enforced three-week absence, Cantona was soon dropping deep on the left, hoping to lose the irksome McMahon and looking for opportunities to send Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis behind the City rearguard with finely judged diagonal passes.

The first goal, when it came after 40 minutes, was a reminder of United's very best form this season. When Hughes put Kanchelskis away down the right, the winger tore past David Brightwell and then kept a cool head, waiting until the last possible moment before squaring the ball for Cantona to celebrate his return by tapping it home. Eight minutes later, deep into first-half injury time, Hughes worked a brilliant exchange with the Frenchman, enabling Cantona to slide the ball under Andy Dibble and send United into the dressing- room with a 2-0 lead.

Watching a seven-match unbeaten run come to an end, Brian Horton would have seen many encouraging signs, notably in the combative way McMahon and Rocastle took the game to Keane and Ince in midfield, and in the mobility of Rosler and Paul Walsh up front. Now almost certain of Premiership survival, City were trying to play neat and progressive football. But their good intentions often played into United's hands, and Rocastle became the second City player to enter the referee's notebook when he disputed the award of a corner after he and two colleagues had failed to halt Kanchelskis's serpentine dribble.

Afterwards, Fergsuon paid generous tribute to City's efforts. 'Tactically they did very well,' he said. 'They played without a central striker, and Bruce and Pallister had a problem in that they had no one to play against. In the early part of the match, no one seemed to know where Rosler was playing. But we worked it out, and I always felt that we had a wee bit better cutting edge.'

United relaxed in the second half, spreading the ball wide and giving Kanchelskis several opportunities to make this one of David Brightwell's more taxing afternoons. A move started by Cantona deep on the left, continued by Hughes and Kanchelskis and culminating in two penalty-area dummies by the Frenchman, might have produced their goal of the season had Kanchelskis not found himself crowded out in the act of shooting.

Cantona was all over the place - dispossessing Rosler in the United area, popping up at left-back with a long pass to put Keane clear, and hurdling Curle's uncompromising tackle with a d'Artagnan leap, immediately followed by an exquisite pass which tested Dibble's speed. Wednesday night at Elland Road, when the players' player of the year faces the team that rejected him, should be worth the detour.

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