Football: Closing act in the theatre of dreams

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER United have taken another large stride towards that Holy Grail they call the championship. The crucial difference this season is that one step forward is unlikely to be followed by two steps back.

If they win their last three games the prize is theirs, regardless of anything Aston Villa can do, and Chelsea's David Webb is just one among many who believe they will win the lot. The mood is noticeably different at Old Trafford this time. So, too, are the circumstances. Mark Hughes, who is benefiting more than most, summed it up best. 'Last season we were going into games dreading them,' he said. 'Now, its just a joy to play.'

The enjoyment was rooted in self- confidence and a more relaxed run-in. 'We said we were confident last time, but deep down, we weren't,' Hughes added. 'We knew there were underlying faults in our game. The other big difference is that last season we had to play four big games in six days, and it's impossible to play well that often in such a short space of time.'

This year, with their last four matches spread over three weeks, they had been getting the rest needed to preserve fitness and form.

The team is stronger in more ways than one. There are none of the injuries which had such a debilitating, disruptive effect last time, and the recruitment of Eric Cantona has proved to be a master stroke. Hughes has many admirable qualities, but he is not a prolific scorer, and the Frenchman's nine League goals in 18 starts have been invaluable in bringing the front line's productivity up to scratch.

Both scored on Saturday, when United beat Chelsea 3-0, and deserved to win by four or five. Brimming with confidence, the leaders had the look of champions elect, and after 26 years of misses - some near, most not so near - their hour would seem to be at hand. When they come to send out the party invitations, there should be a couple of honoured guests. After John Hilditch, the referee for whom time stood still, step forward Dave Beasant, the goalkeeper who can't.

The giant they call 'Lurch' was all over the place on Saturday; on his line when he should have been off it, out of his area when he should have been in it. After The Cat, the cat on a hot tin roof. Beasant's uncertainty bred ruinous doubt and confusion among the defenders in front of him, greatly simplifying United's task.

Dropped by the previous regime, and told he would never play for the club again, 'Lurch' has stumbled into what looks like his final crisis. To blame, to a greater or lesser degree, for all three goals, he will presumably give way to Dmitri Kharin, who must have been brought over from Russia with something other than bench- warming in mind.

While they had good reason to be grateful for Beasant's shortcomings, it would be wrong to push the 'Lucky United' thing too far. They had the good fortune even the best sides can need the previous week, when overtime was required to overcome Sheffield Wednesday, but they drew strength from that reprieve, and were impressively superior to Chelsea in all phases of play.

Wednesday may be the best team in the League on their day, but United have been better over eight months, and would be worthy champions. Unlike last season, when the title was lost rather than won, there can be no talk of winning the championship by default.

To their credit, the favourites are coping well with the pressure. And after a generation in waiting, there is no pressure quite like it. The Pink, the fans' bible, is unequivocal. 'Reds ready to conquer the world', it said on Saturday night - this of a team which got no further than the first round of the Uefa Cup. In fairness, they have come on in leaps and bounds since Steve Bruce's missed penalty saw them Torpedoed in Moscow, and a fifth successive win, at Crystal Palace on Wednesday, would take them to within sight of the tape.

On Saturday, the tone was set in the second minute, when persistent hustling by Cantona, of all people, dispossessed Frank Sinclair. If Chelsea were going to be second best when it came to scrapping, they stood no chance.

Cantona had the ball in the net a minute later, albeit from an offside position, and United were off and running.

It might just have been different had Chelsea got their noses in front after 21 minutes, when Peter Schmeichel foiled John Spencer with a stunning save at close quarters. Instead, the gulf between the best, and quite possibly the worst, of Premier League goalkeepers was pointed up three minutes later, when Beasant allowed a relatively innocuous shot from Hughes - 'I didn't hit it that well' - to creep in at his near post.

'Are you watching, Big Fat Ron?' rent the Mancunian air. If he was, the Villa manager will have clasped that immaculate coiffeur in disbelief when Graham Stuart, unattended, spurned an inviting chance to equalise.

Chelsea stayed in contention until just before half-time, when the second of what Webb called two 'scabby' goals knocked the stuffing out of them. Again Beasant was found wanting, this time by Lee Sharpe's cross, which had him nonplussed as it passed his near post. Steve Clarke, expecting his goalkeeper to meet the ball, suddenly found it arrowing at him in the six-yard box, with Cantona at his back, and his attempt to head behind for a corner succeeded only in nodding it into his own net.

Bad went to worse. Four minutes into the second half, Beasant was lured off his line and embarrassed by a deft chip from Ryan Giggs which allowed Cantona to score, close in. Three-nil and that was that. United's control was such that they could bring off Giggs and Brian McClair for a pre-Selhurst rest.

Alex Ferguson said he was 'happy' and for once he looked it. Everyone was 'fit, much wiser and capable of handling the situation this time.' He was 'not too worried about Villa', resting easy in the knowledge that 'if we win our games, it looks after itself.' Webb was not about to argue with that. Taking over from Ferguson in Old Trafford's cinema-seated interview room, the Arthur Daley of management opened up with: 'Hello, chaps. It's the B film now, and we could have done with a Johnny Weissmuller out there.'

Tarzan to replace Lurch? 'Not really. We were second in a few positions, not just one.' Did United have the look of champions, the Manchester Evening News wanted to know. Feigned cockney puzzlement. 'Is that look you're saying, or a northern luck? The way they're playing, I think they'll win all their remaining games.'

A hard act to follow, but Tommy Docherty can upstage them all. 'That Beasant,' the Doc growled. 'He leaves an answerphone inside the near post, and when the ball arrives the message says: I'm sorry, I'm not here at the moment. Perhaps somebody else can deal with your call.'

They are all laughing now in the theatre of dreams.

Goals: Hughes (24) 1-0; Clarke og (44) 2-0; Cantona (48) 3-0.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair (Robson, 50), Hughes, Giggs (Kanchelskis, 67). Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Chelsea: Beasant; Clarke, Sinclair, Townsend, Johnsen, Donaghy (Barnard, 68), Stuart, Spencer, Shipperley (Livingstone, 55), Hall, Wise. Substitute not used: Kharin (gk).

Referee: H King (Merthyr).