FOOTBALL: Cantona refuses to be upstaged

THE PRODIGAL RETURNS: The Frenchman has the first and final words but in between two-goal Fowler grabs the limelight; Evans disappointed as points are shared
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In the end it was neither fish nor foul - nor sardine, nor seagull, as the man himself might have put it. Eric Cantona made a goal and scored a goal but his welcome home party ended in anti-climax.

Though the points were shared Liverpool were the moral victors, while Newcastle will have been as pleased as anybody. They are now four points clear at the top of the Premiership, Manchester United remain third and Liverpool are fourth. September is barely out and already the contenders are massing.

There will be battles royal ahead but, yesterday, the attention was on a republican. There were enough tricolours about to celebrate Bastille Day and, 68 seconds into the match, they were being waved like batons as Cantona's third touch helped put United ahead.

However, the returning Frenchman was all but upstaged by a precocious scouser. Robbie Fowler scored twice as Liverpool outplayed their hosts and hushed the madding crowd. Then some sloppy work in midfield allowed United back in and the gatecrashers had to settle for a share of the spoils.

They felt they should have had more. An unusually angry Roy Evans strongly criticised David Elleray, the referee, who had been quoted before the game saying the spotlight was on him as well as Cantona. Elleray gave United a penalty - from which Cantona scored - for pushing in the area but denied Liverpool a similar claim.

"It is a sad story when the referee thinks he has equal billing with Eric Cantona," Evans said. "I thought Cantona passed the test but the referee did not. We deserved more than we got. We lost two points on a dodgy decision." Television pictures suggested Elleray was half-right, both should have been penalties. For the first, after 26 minutes, Steve Bruce appeared to be holding Fowler as he burst past him. For the second, after 70, Jamie Redknapp appeared to push Ryan Giggs before toe-ending the ball away from him.

The controversy detracted from an absorbing and thrilling game which started with high drama. The balloons and ticker-tape which greeted Cantona's arrival were still blowing across the pitch when United took the lead.

Inevitably it was Cantona who was at the core. Despite all the attention he found space on the left and Andy Cole found him. His cross reached Nicky Butt who went past Phil Babb with his first touch and scored with his second.

For a few minutes Liverpool looked lost. A hamstring injury to Mark Wright meant John Scales had been pitched in for his first game of the season while Jason McAteer was making his full League debut for the club. However, slowly their passing began to gel and United were forced so far back that Ryan Giggs became an auxiliary left-back.

The equaliser should have come after 22 minutes but Ian Rush, who had a quiet game, just failed to reach a clever chip by Fowler. Four minutes later came the penalty appeal. Fowler, though, was not to be denied and six minutes later he again came in from the left and drilled a ball inside Peter Schmeichel's near post as the goalkeeper anticipated a cross.

Schmeichel's anguish was shared by Lee Sharpe. Less than a minute earlier a sweeping move involving Cantona had given him a clear chance, but it fell to his wrong foot and he shot tamely at David James.

At half-time Alex Ferguson, the United manager, gambled. Butt, suffering from a groin strain, came off, David Beckham came on and the team reverted to a three-man central defence, aping Liverpool. The only other time it was tried this season, at Aston Villa on the opening day, it was abandoned after shipping three goals in 37 minutes. Eight minutes later it looked as if a repeat performance was looming. Gary Neville was caught on his own and brushed aside by Fowler who delicately chipped Schmeichel to put Liverpool ahead. United pushed up but Liverpool remained in control.

Then calamity befell Michael Thomas. Having come in for John Barnes - missing for domestic reasons - he had provided the midfield with bite and Fowler with the pass for his second goal. But now he dithered in possession, was tackled by Philip Neville and the ball broke to Cantona. He fed Giggs who tumbled under Redknapp's challenge. Cantona coolly dispatched the penalty.

Though Cole, with an acrobatic overhead kick, and Redknapp, with a free- kick, went close Cantona had had the final say. This time everyone knew what he meant. He was back.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Schmeichel; P Neville (Scholes, 72), Bruce, Pallister, G Neville; Butt (Beckham, h/t), Keane, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole, Giggs. Substitute not used: Parker.

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Scales, Ruddock, Babb; McAteer, McManaman, Thomas, Redknapp, Harkness; Rush, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Kennedy, Collymore.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

n The knee injury that caused Manchester United's Denis Irwin to miss yesterday's match has forced his withdrawal from the Republic of Ireland squad for next week's game against Latvia.

More football, pages 26 and 27