Football Commentary: Cantona the limousine to Spurs' banger

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The Independent Online
GEORGE GRAHAM had a point - in the European Cup it was more ou est? than ooh-aah. In domestic competition, however, Eric Cantona is an oasis in a desert of dross and the Gallic charmer is already assured of at least one vote when the football writers come to elect their Footballer of the Year.

Fit for the honour? In every sense, it seems. It is not only his talent that sets him apart as a champion in a team of them. His physique is also second to none. The Manchester United players were put through a programme of fitness tests last week and it was Cantona, not those Duracell midfielders, who came out on top. When body fat was measured, the Frenchman's was easily the lowest - under eight per cent.

A special diet, peut-etre? Yes, but nothing exotic. One glass of wine before a game ('it is good for the memory') and some pasta ('but no garlic.')

Whether it is his lean cuisine or loner's lifestyle, the man is in superb shape. Alex Ferguson has rested just about everyone else 'to freshen them up', but Cantona is an exception. 'I've been looking to give him a break, but he doesn't want it and it seems he doesn't need it. He has showed he has the resilience to cope with the unique demands of the English game.'

It is his skill rather than his stamina that we should savour, of course. On Saturday, when United outclassed Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 to preserve their 13-point lead at the top of the table, he shone like a beacon on the mudflats of White Hart Lane.

Traditionally, this fixture is one of the highlights of the season. Not any more. Spurs are at such a low ebb that it was too easy for England's finest, who should really have had four. Paul Ince and Roy Keane, all power and purpose, made mincemeat out of Tottenham's flimsy midfield, providing the platform for you-know-who to run the game. The mud bogged down lesser mortals; Cantona appeared to glide across it, treating an appreciative audience to the full repertoire of flicks, feints and delicious crossfield passes.

His clever, often intuitive prompting created enough openings for United to have won by a landslide. That they had just Mark Hughes' close-range goal to show for their overwhelming superiority was down to an uncharacteristically casual approach and the offside flag which robbed Keane of what would have been a spectacular second.

Ferguson accused his players of carelessness and admitted to 'visions of us throwing away two valuable points'. He also said Spurs had given them 'an easier game than we expected.'

Too true. Tottenham are that sad sight, a great club fallen on hard times. Whatever plonk it is that Cantona uses 'for the memory', they could do with a vat of the stuff in north London to recall the heady, not-so-distant days of Hoddle and Waddle, Gascoigne and Lineker. Darren Caskey and Sol Campbell lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

For those of the blue and white persuasion, the afternoon began ominously and got worse. Before the match, Alan Sugar passed among us in the Nissen hut they call the 'press suite' at Spurs. Part royal visit, part informal briefing, his performance was extraordinary.

In among some tired one-liners about power cuts and Martin Edwards offering a shilling for the meter was the fact that Spurs were reducing the allocation of tickets to players and staff, and even paring the milk bill in an attempt to save, notionally, pounds 100,000 a year.

All that, and more, could go on a wage rise for one player, Sugar accepted, and the admission that such economies are needed does not augur well, with reinforcements urgently required to halt a slide carrying a lightweight team ever nearer the relegation mire.

Hit hard by the long-term injuries which cost them their two England internationals, Gary Mabbutt and Teddy Sheringham, Spurs have now lost five of their last six League games at home, where they also went out of the Coca-Cola Cup in midweek. Their two outstanding young prospects, Darren Anderton and Nick Barmby, need more experienced support if the drama is not to become a crisis.

Ossie Ardiles, looking more harassed with every game, confessed to being 'worried about relegation' and will resume his search for a good, cheap striker - a contradiction in terms if ever there was one - today.

More nous was needed. 'We are asking too much of our youngers players. Unfortunately, we don't have anybody else.' New faces, then? 'Plural is too much, I think. We must talk in the singular.'

The match was singularly United, the tone set in the first minute, when a Ryan Giggs cross set up Keane for a volley which Ian Walker was unable to hold.

Anderton, with a couple of potshots from distance, and Campbell, with a close-range header provided token resistance, but the champions' security was such that they could afford to carry Steve Bruce, who soldiered on with a broken rib. Giggs might have scored twice before Hughes finally did so, flicking in Keane's centre from the right at the near post with an assist from Colin Calderwood's lunging leg. The poverty of Spurs' finishing, sans Sheringham, is such that one was always going to be enough.

'A good result in difficult conditions' was the bottom line for Ferguson. With no midweek game, United's players will be allowed the rare luxury of a couple of days off. 'They're looking forward to that', the manager said.

Tottenham, in contrast, face a problematical FA Cup replay at home to Peterborough on Wednesday night. We can safely assume they are not looking forward to that.

Goal: Hughes (48) 0-1.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-1-3-2): Walker; Kerslake, Calderwood, Sedgley, Edinburgh (Austin, 56); Samways; Anderton, Hazard, Caskey; Campbell, Barmby (Hendry, 64). Substitute not used: Day (gk)

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes (McClair, 81). Substitutes not used: Dublin, Sealey (gk).

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).

(Photograph omitted)