Football: Cantona on the mark

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Chelsea. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . .1

ERIC CANTONA'S first goal for Manchester United came at Stamford Bridge yesterday and brightened an afternoon of otherwise unremitting, unfulfilled promise. But the result was more than an unambitious United deserved and less than Chelsea warranted.

The game lodged for so long in midfield that any goal would have been welcomed. In the event, Cantona's was a gem, yet it would have been easier to justify a victory for Chelsea, who had to battle against United's defensiveness and for a while thought they had succeeded.

Nine wins in 12 games had taken Chelsea on to the ledge just beneath the summit of the Premier League and into the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup. Not only that, they had secured a 20-year lease on their ground and an option to buy. With United also beaming with satisfaction after a run of four successive wins in which Mark Hughes scored four times, there was ample reason to expect that this would be a match to start the Christmas programme in good heart. It proved otherwise.

Injuries, this time to Bryan Robson and Ryan Giggs, again allowed Alex Ferguson to involve Cantona without causing any domestic rows. Whether Chelsea's busyness would allow Cantona to express himself here was a question that quickly seemed answered when half a dozen ragged, ratty tackles set the tone.

When playing without width on both sides United usually look less capable, and it was Chelsea's Graham Stuart, well supported by Dennis Wise in his inside-forward role, who soon commanded the whole of the right side.

These two, with their speed and understanding, have been the scourge of many a defence this season. But here United's broad- shouldered men at the back often let the Chelsea pair approach knowing full well that without the power of Mick Harford to make the ball stick up front, they were unlikely to be a big physical threat in the penalty area.

For Chelsea, attractive though so much of their approach work remained, there was a barrier beyond which it seemed United would not let them pass. Not that this hold in defence was turned into any positive counter-attacking. United hardly had a worthwhile attack throughout the first half and Chelsea, in spite of their domination, could not produce a shot on target.

United continued to let Chelsea come to them, safe, they assumed, to rely on the fact that Chelsea's home form this season is less positive than their away achievements. Yet that seemed a curious gamble that could be undone by one Wise-Stuart inspired move getting through to Robert Fleck in the penalty area. It almost happened early in the second half, but Fleck, at last in some space, failed to control with his first touch and a game in considerable need of a goal to spark life into a grey, wet afternoon drifted back into a predictable pattern.

United's attitude was personified in Paul Ince, who tackled tenaciously but hardly ever made the sort of forward runs that United need when lacking Robson.

The biggest crowd of the season at Stamford Bridge knew that if anyone was going to break the deadlock and overcome the height and strength of the United defence, it had to be Harford who, after 66 minutes of frustration on the bench, was brought on. The inexplicable surprise was that Fleck was the man to be replaced. All through the game Chelsea had needed support for Fleck, but now he seemed to be the scapegoat for the attack's failings.

Fleck threw his shirt into the dugout and gave Harford a cool tap on the hand. Yet Harford immediately influenced the game. He had been on the field for only a minute when the United defence gave him their full attention, Gary Pallister tackled him roughly. Eddie Newton touched the free-kick to David Lee - some 25 yards out - and his strong, low shot took a deflection. At last Peter Schmeichel was unable to cover the whole of the goal. The ball passed him before he could get anywhere near the far post.

Throughout the game Cantona had given pleasant glimpses of his delightful skills: little flicks and back-heels, the occasional incisive long pass, but nothing breathtaking. After 71 minutes he changed all that. A good deep, searching cross from Lee Sharpe was flicked across the penalty area by the industrious Mike Phelan and the Chelsea defence suddenly, and too late, realised that Cantona was unmarked on the far side.

Cantona took the ball down and turned slightly to see his target. There were defenders as well as Kevin Hitchcock to beat, but he fooled them all with the speed and precision of his control and scored with a fine shot. United had clearly come for a draw, which is a trait assumed to have been overcome in recent games. But for Cantona, that tactic would have rebounded badly. However, that is presumably why they bought him, and that, too, is why Ferguson will sooner or later have to find him a permanent place at somebody else's expense.

Chelsea: K Hitchcock; G Hall, F Sinclair, A Townsend, D Lee, M Donaghy, G Stuart, R Fleck (M Harford, 66 min), G Le Saux, E Newton, D Wise. Subs not used: C Burley, N Colgan (gk). Manager: I Porterfield.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, M Phelan (A Kanchelskis, 84 min), G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, L Sharpe. Subs not used: C Blackmore, F Digby (gk). Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: R Lewis (Great Bookham).

Goals: Lee (1-0, 67 min); Cantona (1-1, 70 min).

(Photograph omitted)