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OLD TRAFFORD oohed and aahed to salute its new hero yesterday, but it was the old one who emerged triumphant, Mark Hughes upstaging Eric Cantona on his United debut by winning a fractious Manchester derby with a goal spectacular even by the Welsh warrior's special standards.
This third successive victory lifts United into fifth place in the Premier League, above Arsenal and nine points behind the leaders, Norwich City, whose visit on Saturday was inevitably being described last night as a championship six-pointer.
Despite Cantona's 45-minute cameo yesterday's result was one born of Mancunian grit rather than Gallic flair.
For much of a fiercely competitive match the oohs and aahs were involuntary, provoked by the sight of Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Steve McMahon knocking lumps off each other with a series of full- bloodied and often illegal challenges.
By the time Cantona arrived, as a second-half substitute for Ryan Giggs, a bruising pattern had been established which had him thinking he had transferred to another planet rather than just across the Pennines.
When he got on, United were already a goal to the good, Ince decorating a titanic performance with a 20th-minute strike of a man at the very top of his form. The England midfielder is not a prolific scorer, but the goals he does get tend to be memorable ones, and his fourth in 67 games was no exception, Steve Bruce laying back Hughes's short cross from the right for Ince, lurking just outside the penalty area, to drive low into Tony Coton's bottom-left corner.
Denis Irwin, cutting in from the left, demanded a full stretch save with City under the cosh and forced to concede foul after foul - 20 in the first half alone.
When they finally managed to get a toe-hold on the game just before the interval the dynamic Ince denied David White with a heroic, last-ditch tackle and Fitzroy Simpson, set up by Niall Quinn, shot wastefully wide from 12 yards.
The substitution the crowd wanted was made at half-time when Giggs' retirement with a damaged ankle facilitated yet another Cantona debut - the ninth of a nomadic club career.
Struggling to pick up the pell mell pace of the game, he was denied a dream start when, within five minutes of his introduction, Keith Curle cleared off his toes as he moved in on Lee Sharpe's left- wing cross.
City promptly made a substitution of their own, Peter Reid putting himself on in place of Simpson and with Reid, Robson and McMahon creaking away in midfield, it was not so much derby as Darby and Joan.
The force, though, was still with United, who were clearly the better side, and Hughes' fulminating strike, after 73 minutes, appeared to have put the issue beyond doubt.
Wrong. Within a minute, Peter Schmeichel hesitated over Rick Holden's cross from the left and Quinn stabbed the ball in from negligible range to set up a frantic finale which would have brought City equality but for a marvellous reflex save by Schmeichel, from White.
'Two marvellous hits,' was how Alex Ferguson described the goals by Ince and Hughes, United's manager adding that Cantona had found it difficult to get into such a frenzied game.
Norwich at home next Saturday would be more to his liking, although whether he starts must be doubtful with Hughes, the striker he was expected to replace, responding to the threat by hitting a rich vein of form.
It is a match Ferguson feels United must win. 'The results at the weekend helped to put Norwich even further ahead,' he said, 'and we can't allow too much daylight to develop between us.'
Manchester United: Schmeichel, Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Robson, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs (Cantona, 45). Substitutes not used: Phelan, Digby (gk).
Manchester City: Coton, Brightwell, Phelan, McMahon, Curle, Hill, White, Sheron (Flitcroft, 65), Quinn, Simpson (Reid, 54), Holden. Substitute not used: Margetson (gk).
Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).
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