Football: Cantona's loss no burden

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

Middlesbrough. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

ERIC CANTONA, having collected 21 disciplinary points, is now suspended and will miss the League matches away to Liverpool and Oldham. The prospect was not worrying Alex Ferguson, even though l'enfant cheri de victoire has been on the losing side only once in his 12 matches since leaving Leeds and the Frenchman was in part responsible for converting United's finishing from loose to devastating in the last 11 minutes.

Cantona, however, is not indiscriminate. He also has to serve a one-match international suspension which means that France cannot take him on 24 March, when United are home to Arsenal.

Ferguson gave two reasons for confidence: Bryan Robson, Darren Ferguson and Dion Dublin are all close to first-team fitness again and he has no other senior player injured; and Kanchelskis, Wallace, Phelan, Blackmore, Gillespie and Martin are all queueing for a first- team match.

Robson had an A team match on Saturday and plays for the reserves on Wednesday. He would be ready for Anfield on Saturday. Dublin had an impressive return for the reserves at Nottingham and scored twice in the 3-1 win at Sunderland. Ferguson hinted that Dublin is not quite ready for the Premier League. The March programme includes Aston Villa and Arsenal at home and Manchester City away.

Cantona not only scores and makes goals, he also makes a vast difference to the functioning of United's midfield. His absence against Sheffield United, playing for France, almost certainly cost the club their place in the FA Cup. Rather than play an attacker to replace Cantona, Ferguson might restore Robson alongside the magnificent Paul Ince. Ryan Giggs is in almost unbelievable form and reluctant as one is to make the obvious comparison, it is true to say that such a prodigy has not been seen on Stretford's fields since the slim young Best.

Boro could not find the football to match their classy Wedgwood blue shirts. Injuries to key players - and not enough quality players - have wrecked their confidence and confirmed the predictions that they would struggle to survive. But Alan Kernaghan is on the bench again and Jon Hendrie back on the field so all is not lost.

Ferguson added that he did not mind if chances were missed so long as they continue to be made - a cheerily philosophical attitude after victory. He would have been less sanguine if Steve Pears' heroics had forced a 0-0 draw. Pears, once of United, again played magnificently at Old Trafford while Mark Hughes and Lee Sharpe fulfilled their usual quota of misses.

Peter Schmeichel had to make one tip over and save one shot. 'United will definitely win the championship,' Lawrence said. Ah, but they all say that.

Goals: Giggs (20) 1-0; Irwin (79) 2-0; Cantona (86) 3-0.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Kanchelskis, Phelan, Sealey (gk).

Middlesbrough: Pears; Morris, Phillips, Whyte, Mohan, Peake, Hendrie, Mustoe, (Slaven, 72), Wilkinson, Kamara, Wright. Substitutes not used: Kernaghan, Ironside (gk).

Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).