Football: Cantona sent off again as United held: Magical Merson leads Arsenal's spirited fightback in spectacular fashion as hot-headed Frenchman undermines the red cause

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Arsenal. . . . . . .2

Manchester United. .2

ONE WIN in their last five games and Eric Cantona sent off for the second time in four days. Unmistakeable cracks are starting to appear in the champions' armour, and their six- point lead could be wiped out within a week if Blackburn's rampant Rovers win at home to Swindon Town on Saturday, and again at Wimbledon next Tuesday.

United led twice, Lee Sharpe celebrating his first appearance of 1994 with two goals, but Arsenal fought back with a spirit evocative of their title teams to claim the point which was the very least they deserved, courtesy of Paul Merson's spectacular driven equaliser.

Dropping two more points was bad enough, but Alex Ferguson and his players headed home in grim mood, the indiscipline which may prove to be their Achilles' heel having seen Cantona banished two minutes from the end, for the second of two bookable offences.

'Mon genius', as Ferguson calls him, is again looking more like the enfant terrible of old, and is now suspended not only for the FA Cup semi-final against Oldham Athletic, but also for three important League games, including the vital one at Blackburn on Saturday week.

Roy Keane was also cautioned, for a spiteful kick at Paul Davis, and he, too, will miss the semi-final. Standards are slipping, in every sense. Ferguson needs to get a grip if United's pursuit of an unprecedented treble is not to founder on disciplinary rocks of their own making.

United arrived with a modest five points from four games, the most recent of which saw the punchbags of Swindon Town hit back for a 2-2 draw. Arsenal, in contrast, have picked up nicely since their FA Cup demise against Bolton Wanderers. It had all the makings, and Highbury's best attendance of the season (36,203) was not to be disappointed and savoured every rumbustious minute of a furious scrap which had the atmosphere at boiling point throughout.

Tempers were frayed, and too often lost, for those of purist persuasion, but the pell- mell pace at which both sides slugged it out made for riveting viewing. The Torino triumph still fresh in the mind, Arsenal taunted their visitors with the reminder that 'There's only one team in Europe'. Not for long. The teasing choruses died with a strangled gasp after only 10 minutes, when a horrible handling error by David Seaman presented United with the lead.

A goalkeeper good enough to play for England should have held the shot with which mark Hughes responded to Paul Parker's right-wing cross. Instead, Seaman dropped the ball at the feet of Sharpe, who gratefully dispatched his 10th goal of the season at yes please range.

No sooner were the celebrations over than United began to show the less endearing side of their nature, with Paul Ince fortunate to escape punishment for a nasty foul on Ian Selley and Keane booked for his senseless assault on Davis.

Full of running, Arsenal might have been level after half an hour, when they were thrice denied by dogged, desperate defence. Peter Schmeichel, advancing from his line, did well to keep out Ian Wright's initial shot with a sprawling save, but when the ball ran to Alan Smith the goalkeeper was dependant on Sharpe's last-ditch block. Still there was danger, still United were equal to it, with Ince getting back to boot the third strike, from Davis, off the line.

The reprieve was only temporary. Parity was restored after 37 minutes when Merson's inswinging free-kick from the left caused havoc in the goalmouth where, with Schmeichel rooted to his line, Gary Pallister's involuntary nudge took the ball in at the far post.

After his early indiscretion, Seaman looked more like England's No 1 when he thwarted Ryan Giggs with an improvised, legs-first save and Merson was shut out in the act of shooting by a marvellous tackle from Steve Bruce.

United regained the lead nine minutes into the second half, when Cantona's cross from the left found its way via Giggs to Sharpe, who scored with a clubbing left-foot shot, close in.

Wright, with a lovely chip, was close to equalising within a minute. Chance for chance, tit for tat. Gripping stuff.

Proud and combative Arsenal hit back with relentless determination and had the reward after 78 minutes when Smith's clever pass set up Merson in the inside-right channel from where he drilled the ball home via the far post at its junction with the crossbar.

The longer it went on, the better the Gunners got and had Steve Bould, with a header, or Wright, who had a 'goal' disallowed won it for them, even the most ardent Stretford Ender could have been hard pressed to quibble.

United were second best for the last half-hour, their discomfort evident when Cantona was cautioned for fouling Selley, then sent off two minutes later when he launched himself into successive reckless lunges at Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn.

What had Ferguson made of it all? 'We've not been doing anything any different. Maybe the referees are reading the papers.' Much more whitewash and Moan United will be playing in yet another alternative strip.

Arsenal (4-3-3): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Jensen, Selley, Davis (Campbell, 69); Smith, Wright, Merson. Substitutes not used: Keown, Miller (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs, Keane, Ince, Sharpe (Robson, 83); Hughes, Cantona. Substitutes not used: Robson, Sealey (gk).

Referee: V Callow (Solihull).