Football: Cantona in the groove

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The Independent Online
Southampton. . . . . . . .1

Manchester United. . . . .3

IT WAS almost too easy. Manchester United, bristling with skill and intent, swept Southampton aside yesterday to maintain their position at the top of the Premiership. Complacency, rather than the home team, was the principal opponent.

Not that United let things slip like they had against Newcastle last week. This was a compelling show, marred only by the chances they squandered. They got three goals and could have had six. By the same measure, Southampton got one and could have had four.

'United were magnificent,' Ian Branfoot, the Southampton manager, said. 'It was as good a performance as I've seen in the Premier League in four years. I remember Leeds beating us 4-1 here a couple of seasons ago and telling people to back them for the title. Put your money on United now, you'll earn yourself a few bob.

'They have pace and power all over the pitch. They're good on the ground and also have an aerial threat. We will play worse than we did today and win matches.'

Before the match United's manager, Alex Ferguson, had disrupted a formation that had been good enough to defeat last year's runners-up, Aston Villa, on Monday. He dropped Andrei Kanchelskis to accommodate the fit-again Eric Cantona, saying: 'I always think with Eric playing the team is going to win the game. He either scores a goal or makes one.'

It proved to be a prescient remark. United can do without Cantona - they managed to get to the top of the table without him - but they would be the poorer for it. Yesterday the Frenchman was at his flamboyant best and, yes, he scored a goal and made one.

Ferguson needed to wait only four minutes for his talisman to work. The opening phase was all United, Ryan Giggs going just wide with a shot after 20 seconds that was followed by shots from Paul Ince and Mark Hughes that whistled by the uprights.

Having set down their markers, United found the target after five minutes and it was Cantona who prised the Saints defence apart. The Frenchman, receiving the ball with his back to goal, dummied to go left and then back-heeled the ball into the path of Denis Irwin.

It was an outrageous piece of skill that was rewarded when the full-back crossed from the left flank and Lee Sharpe volleyed in acrobatically from six yards. Last season the England winger managed only one goal; he has scored three this week alone.

At that moment Southampton resembled those part-time teams professional managers bring in to give their own men confidence, but within seven minutes the sacrificial lambs proved they had teeth too. Glenn Cockerill played the ball into the area and Matthew Le Tissier, an Englishman who, at his best, can stand comparison with Cantona, back-heeled into Neil Maddison's path. The midfielder scored and at that moment Branfoot believed a Southampton victory was possible. 'We were playing well and I thought we might catch them,' he said.

That notion was shot down by Cantona. His great asset is his ability to find space no matter how tightly he is marked and there was no Southampton player within 10 yards of him when Ince won a ball in midfield and played the ball to the Frenchman.

Cantona advanced a couple of steps and then chipped the ball over Tim Flowers from the corner of the area. It was an immaculate shot that could hardly have been bettered if the parabola of the ball had been drawn by hand, and it had his manager enthusing. 'I told Ryan Giggs that when he can hit a ball with such precision he can call himself a player,' he said.

That was the game's pivotal moment, but it did not end the match in terms of a contest. Southampton were not prepared to just lie down and die and they created enough to give Peter Schmeichel an opportunity to make several outstanding saves. One shot from Le Tissier was so strong that the Danish goalkeeper had to receive treatment for his hands.

Before half-time Iain Dowie and Neal Bartlett had Schmeichel flying around his goal but the match was decided three minutes after the interval. Cantona found Giggs, who curled a pass between the Southampton back four for the overlapping Irwin. He drew Flowers and then slipped the ball past him in a manner more reminiscent of a seasoned striker than a defender. Certainly Roy Keane would have done better to match his team-mate's composure when in a similar position seconds later.

With that, United could afford to bring on Brian McClair and Kanchelskis purely to give their players a rest. 'You tinker with the formation and you can affect the form of players,' Ferguson said. 'But you have to take the long-term view. It's still August and by Wednesday we'll have played a seventh of the League season. Then we have European and League Cup ties. You have to have a strong squad to compete.'

The match ended with Micky Adams going close at one end and Ince hitting a ball just wide at the other. Even the lovers of the less savoury were catered for with Ince and Le Tissier squaring up to each other in a situation that could have blown out of all proportion if a less capable referee than Mr Gunn had been in charge. Football should always be like this.

Southampton (4-4-2): T Flowers; J Kenna, K Moore (S Charlton, 67 min), K Monkou, F Benali; G Cockerill (N Banger, 56 min), N Bartlett, N Maddison, M Adams; M Le Tissier, I Dowie. Sub not used: I Andrews (gk). Manager: I Branfoot.

Manchester United (4-4-2): P Schmeichel; P Parker, S Bruce, G Pallister, D Irwin; R Giggs (B McClair, 65 min), P Ince, R Keane (A Kanchelskis, 73 min), L Sharpe; M Hughes, E Cantona. Sub not used: L Sealey (gk). Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey, Sussex).

Goals: Sharpe (0-1, 5 min); Maddison (1-1, 12 min); Cantona (1-2, 16 min); Irwin (1-3, 48 min).