Football: Cantona orchestrates advance on home front

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Wednesday. .2

Manchester United. . .3

THE big red bandwagon continues to accelerate across England, as well as Europe. United, their early image of brittleness quickly replaced by intuitive teamwork that bordered on the brilliant, opened up a five-point advantage at the pinnacle of the Premiership with a devastating spell midway through the second half. Wednesday started and finished the scoring but United's three-goal assault proved more than adequate.

The exhaustion engendered by European competition was evident in United's initial play, although both sides blossomed to produce an effervescent game. 'It took us a long time to get going,' Alex Ferguson, the visitors' manager, admitted in the wake of only his third victory at Hillsborough.

Ferguson's side contributed little to an aimless first half notable only for the fans' relentless choir practice - the chant of 'Sydney, Sydney,' raising the tempo. The prosaic procession of fruitless end-to-end manoeuvres ended two minutes into the second half, when Wednesday took the lead. Andy Sinton, his purposeful run ended by Gary Pallister's foul, clipped a quick free-kick forward to Chris Bart-Williams. The England Under-21 midfielder, an able deputy for the injured David Hirst, settled himself before drilling the ball towards Peter Schmeichel's goal. The Danish goalkeeper appeared to have the shot covered but it flew past his gloves into the net.

The malaise of mistake-making spread to the other end. United's equaliser resulted from a mis- timed challenge by Carlton Palmer, the makeshift centre- back. The goal was still a delight. Roy Keane released Lee Sharpe along the inside-left channel as Wednesday's defence back-pedalled in vain. The winger's cross was low and hard and Palmer failed to cut it out, allowing Mark Hughes to display his finishing skills close to the penalty spot. The Welshman flicked the ball up, a strategy that bemused Chris Woods, and stroked his fourth goal of the season into the net.

Wednesday were never out of it. Chris Waddle forced Schmeichel into two low saves and Bart-Williams headed over but United knew the tide had turned their way. Frustratingly for the hosts, United's remaining goals were organised by a player who had turned his back on them two years ago. Eric Cantona picked up possession in midfield and flicked the ball through to Hughes, whose low 15-yard drive beat Woods. The irrepressible Cantona then provided Ryan Giggs with a chance to show his goalmouth arrogance, the tyro confronting Woods before rolling his shot to the England international's left. The imperious riposte to Wednesday's opener prompted Trevor Francis, Ferguson's counterpart, to venture: 'For 20 minutes United looked the best team in Europe and a threat to AC Milan and Barcelona.'

Mark Bright's stooping header from Waddle's fine inswinging free-kick set up a raucous finale but United are too professional a side to let slip a lead with a finishing post in sight. A portent for May?

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): C Woods; R Nilsson, D Walker, C Palmer, P King; C Waddle, J Sheridan, G Hyde, A Sinton; M Bright, C Bart-Williams. Subs not used: K Pressman (gk), A Pearce, R Jones. Player- Manager: T Francis.

Manchester United (4-4-2): P Schmeichel; P Parker, S Bruce, G Pallister, D Irwin; R Giggs (A Kanchelskis, 83 min), P Ince, R Keane, L Sharpe; E Cantona, M Hughes. Subs not used:L Sealey (gk), B McClair. Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

Goals: Bart-Williams (47 min, 1-0); Hughes (50 min, 1-1); Hughes (67 min, 1-2); Giggs (70 min, 1-3); Bright (86 min, 2-3).