Manchester United. . .2
PAUL INCE, scoring with a spectacular overhead kick just as a spirited but under-strength Blackburn side were beginning to threaten the lead Eric Cantona had secured for Manchester United, guaranteed that the Double winners retained the Charity Shield in the sunshine yesterday.
Apart from embellishing an entertaining match, Ince's goal had the virtue of ensuring that the traditional pipe-opener was decided by the sword rather than the pen. Cantona had converted a spot-kick midway through the first half, showing the same nonchalance with which he despatched two into Chelsea's net in the FA Cup final. Plus ca change, as they say on the Stretford End.
In another, ominous respect, things have changed considerably since United last paraded a trophy around the national stadium. Philip Don, who dismissed Stefan Schwarz during his last competitive fixture in the World Cup last month, cautioned seven players despite the fact that the match was a malice-free zone.
Prior to the Fifa directive, Mr Don might have contented himself with a discreet word on at least three occasions. Instead he flourished yellow cards as if on commission during the opening 37 minutes - at Blackburn's Tim Sherwood, Graeme Le Saux, Colin Hendry and Jason Wilcox, plus Ryan Giggs of all people - before adding Lee Sharpe and Steve Bruce to his collection in the second half.
Unfortunately, Mr Don neglected to caution Ince for the game's only dangerous challenge, when he raised his studs to Robbie Slater 15 minutes from time. Not for the first time Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson begged to differ. 'You couldn't justify seven bookings in a game like that - and he missed the worst two tackles,' the Blackburn manager argued. 'If you take common sense away, referees don't have a chance and nor do the players.' His United counterpart said the clampdown was 'exactly what the game needed. People are paying high prices and deserve to be entertained.'
The Blackburn end contained numerous empty seats, which probably reflected the club's smaller support. However, it may also have been that some Rovers followers, scrutinising the injury and illness bulletins from Ewood Park last week, decided to save their money.
In the event, it should have been called the Disparity Shield, with United facing what might have been best described as a Blackburn XI. Six players costing a total of pounds 16.4m - Shearer, Sutton, Batty, Gallacher, Warhurst and Newell - were absent. Another of last season's runners-up, David May, had changed sides in the close season, forcing Dalglish to trust in the unproven Slater and Ian Pearce.
They did not fail him; nor did Tony Gale, the 34-year-old centre-back signed on a free transfer from West Ham after doing his pre-season work with Barnet. But gamely as Blackburn battled, particularly the makeshift strike force of Pearce and Stuart Ripley, Tim Flowers had already made an exceptional reflex save from Mark Hughes before United took a deserved 22nd minute lead. Hendry lost possession in the penalty area to Ince, and in attempting to retrieve the ball succeeded only in tripping the United midfielder.
Having been cautioned moments earlier for fouling Cantona, the giant Scot might conceivably have been dismissed, either for a second bookable offence or denying a clear scoring opportunity, but Cantona's accuracy was punishment enough.
United, themselves without Parker, Keane and Irwin, had the better of the match until the final quarter. Giggs, enjoying one of his better games at Wembley, once left Henning Berg floundering on the turf before delivering a teasing low cross which Hendry did well to avoid turning into his own goal.
Finding themselves still only one goal in arrears despite such alarms, Blackburn started to press forward. Sherwood was at the heart of their most incisive moves, yet their best chance stemmed from the wiles of Ripley. Turning cleverly on the edge of the box, he unleashed a cross-shot which cannoned off Bruce to Pearce, who sliced the ball wide from five yards.
United made the most of their reprieve 10 minutes from time. A Giggs corner was only half-cleared by Hendry, enabling a deft back-header by an otherwise subdued Cantona to set up Ince's acrobatics. While the red legions crowed 'what a waste of money', the grin on Dalglish's face as he collected his loser's memento suggested he regarded the afternoon as a useful work-out: no more, no less.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Hendry, Gale, Le Saux; Slater, Atkins (Thorne 64), Sherwood, Wilcox; Ripley, Pearce.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; May, Bruce, Pallister, Sharpe; Kanchelskis, McClair, Ince, Giggs; Cantona; Hughes.
Referee: P Don (Hanworth Park, Middx)
More football, pages 30,31
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