Football / Coca-Cola Cup Final: United's test of self-control: The trouble with a treble is the pressure. Norman Fox says that anxiety may sway today's Coca-Cola Cup final

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The Independent Online
IN THE still unlikely event of Manchester United failing to win this afternoon's Coca-Cola Cup final against Aston Villa at Wembley and then blowing the Premiership and the FA Cup, an incident last weekend may help to explain why.

Blackburn Rovers were one up against Sheffield Wednesday but not totally in control when Alan Shearer had what appeared to be a legitimate second goal belatedly ruled offside by a linesman. Not one Rovers player complained. In similar circumstances recently, United and their manager, Alex Ferguson, have not only complained but become unhinged. Such is pressure.

Two seasons ago pressure cost United the title. This season pressure has lost them their place in the European Cup. It has turned Eric Cantona into an exceptionally talented liability. Pressure at Manchester United is about bringing home trophies the fans feel are theirs by right. Blackburn's manager, Kenny Dalglish, bore a similar burden when he was at Liverpool; now his club's benefactor has offered some of his fortune to make us mention Ewood Park in the same breath as Old Trafford, Anfield and Villa Park.

Last season Ferguson seemed to have got pressure under control but now it appears to have taken control of him. He says the media misconstrue everything he does and says. But offering a handshake to Cantona as he leaves the field in disgrace, defending Peter Schmeichel for a ludicrous challenge on Kim Grant of Charlton Athletic that has cost the goalkeeper his place today, and accusing referees of incompetence when clearly they have shown great composure under a different kind of pressure, are not gestures and statements invented by the press.

Some managers, including Ron Atkinson, try to discount pressure, unconvincingly talking about there being more to life than football when clearly life without football would leave them hollow. Witness Atkinson after the semi-final penalties win against Tranmere: the relief at reaching Wembley and rescuing something from an indifferent season was like a new lease of life for him. Atkinson needs a victory today perhaps even more than Ferguson, but Ferguson is aware that defeat could be the psychological blow that bruises United's progress in those other competitions.

Whether Cantona controls his temper and looks upon the occasion as a chance to show an audience of millions that his skill is something rare the world at large should have recognised a long time ago, is the key to the final. Ferguson's recent show of support for the capricious Frenchman, even when he has least deserved it, seemed unnecessary but there is more to it than that. Both Milan and Internazionale are interested in luring the famously footloose Cantona to Italy, and it would not take too many setbacks in England to persuade him to pack his well-used bags.

When Villa last met United in December, Cantona crafted a 3-1 win and took a standing ovation; United took a 13-point lead. That was their high point. For a while Villa did well to contain them and Earl Barrett at first kept Cantona under control. Indeed, Atkinson organised effective man-marking on Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis. Cantona recalled that he had not experienced man-to-man marking in England before that game. 'It's something I got used to in Europe and I just change my game to make space.' But has that desire to lift himself for fresh challenges been subdued by recent experiences? With Paul McGrath, Shaun Teale and Barrett giving him a hard time today, the chances of his flipping must be high. And if that happens fairly early in the game, the likelihood is that Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Roy Keane will all allow petulance to flourish. With sensible leadership, United ought to have a comfortable victory and provide the platform for an exhibition by Ryan Giggs.

Villa's defeat by Oldham last Saturday was their third in succession. Atkinson talked of being ashamed of the team; if they continued playing like that United would be 'stone-cold certainties' to win today. Yet Villa still have a match-winner in Dean Saunders. The question is: can they get the ball to him.

Probable teams: Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Cox, Teale, McGrath, Barrett; Houghton, Richardson, Townsend, Daley; Atkinson, Saunders.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Sealey; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes.

(Photograph omitted)