West Ham United. . .0
PERHAPS the Premiership is already slipping from Manchester United's grasp. Their victory yesterday was never routine as they might once have expected and was largely bereft of the style which has brought two successive titles to Old Trafford.
Their minds were almost certainly on the European Champions' League fixture against Barcelona on Wednesday and, if so, they should have concentrated on how much better their form must be to have a realistic chance of success. In West Ham they met a side who packed the midfield, making it difficult to advance but which also left them suspect to some adept counter-attacking. Alex Ferguson, the champions' manager, has problems and although they are of the type which most coaches might kill for, he knows there are no easy solutions. Until December he has must try to sustain a title challenge on Saturdays while ensuring his men are at a peak for their midweek European adventures. This is an uncomfortable balance to achieve and while he was candid in admitting his concerns, there were some signs yesterday that he and his players have not yet done so. The early edginess in their play never fully disappeared despite some lovely, loping runs down the right by Andrei Kanchelskis, the occasional delectable touch by Eric Cantona, the odd fleetness of foot from Ryan Giggs and some characteristically steely moments from Paul Ince. These are nice sums to have but the whole rarely threatened to produce a goal and the one which came on the stroke of half-time required some good fortune.
Giggs controlled the ball at the near post although Alvin Martin by then should have cleared Kanchelskis's cross instead of hitting it in the air. A square prod to Cantona was all that was required and he banged the ball in from all of four yards. It was not the signal for something of a more superior vintage. Both sides were at least prepared to attack and while some of the approach work was not unimpressive the finishing was dire. Cantona and Ince both shot wide when they should have been on target and Giggs broke clear only to hit a post. The untidiness at the other end was probably worse to witness for all those who hope the champions prosper in Europe against sides with better strikers than West Ham's.
Ten minutes from time John Moncur was permitted to turn in the area but did not make firm enough contact with his left-foot shot. Seven minutes later Matthew Rush was set up by Martin Allen's charge through the middle but he dwelled too long and Peter Schmeichel smothered his belated shot.
Cantona was insistent afterwards that the league was a priority in the dressing room. Ferguson, who might be less sure of this, said: 'What we are achieving at the moment is to hang in there very well. If we can get to December like this you will see a different side moving up to second gear.'Reuse content