Football Commentary: Eastern promise makes platinum melt

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The Independent Online
JUST when Manchester United thought it was safe to come out of the pack, the country cousins are back, East Anglia's finest bringing a refreshing new dimension to the old north-south rivalry.

It was a bad weekend for the elitists of the so-called Platinum Eight, whose standard bearers, United and Aston Villa, were both beaten, but save those tears. The monied men will come again.

The egalitarian majority will be more inclined to raise a glass to Norwich City and Ipswich Town, the Hayseed Two, whose presence in first and fourth places in the monument to greed that is the Premier League provides welcome proof that it is possible to play good, winning football without constant recourse to the chequebook.

Norwich's goalless hiatus ended with that 4-2 victory over Crystal Palace in midweek, and another win on Saturday, at ebbing Everton's expense, has taken them back to the top at a time when most of us thought their decline was terminal.

Most. Not all. Alex Ferguson was not among those of little faith, the bitter experience of last season having left him wary, and respectful, of all comers.

Could Norwich really win the league? Of course it is possible, the United manager says. And so could Ipswich.

Anxious to lift the black cloud of despondency after the 2-1 defeat at Portman Road, Ferguson finally found a silver lining. 'This will be a good thing,' he said, 'if it knocks all that nonsense out of people's heads about the championship being a foregone conclusion.'

Not too many of us ever saw it that way, Alex, but after six successive wins and 12 games unbeaten it did seem United were set fair for a decent run at the top.

It has to be said - and Ferguson was the first to say it - that Ipswich's unsung heroes (how many could fill a postage stamp on Johnson, Thompson, Yallop or Stockwell?) fully deserved what was their third win in eight days.

By all accounts, they played some lovely stuff in seeing off Tottenham at White Hart Lane last Wednesday, and if Saturday's performance was of a less colourful hue, it had to be, and was no less impressive for it.

Adaptability would appear to be a strong suit. Not only do they change their team and their tactics to negate their opponents' strengths, they are also quick to adjust, mentally and physically, to cope with all surfaces and conditions.

Portman Road on Saturday, like Tranmere's Prenton Park the week before, was a cloying mudheap, which in no way suited their normal passing game, but there was no whingeing. Ipswich simply shrugged in 'that's life' acceptance of winter's worst, and got on with the job.

Specifically, they played the ball longer and higher than is their custom. Frank Yallop, who would seem to be picking up Bontcho Guentchev's English, put it in a broken nutshell: 'We're not long- ball merchants, but maybe today we hit it a few times long.'

In fairness, Yallop the yeoman is not accustomed to media attention after a decade of spear-carrying roles. He may have to get used to it. Four years without a goal, he has suddenly scored two in successive matches, the latest another cracker.

First things first. United did not like the look of a pitch which should have come with duckboards, but they began promisingly enough, with Mark Hughes, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs all threatening an early goal.

Ipswich demanded a couple of saves from Peter Schmeichel, and it was even-steven until a ghastly gaffe by the keeper lauded as the best in Europe tilted the balance.

Guentchev's long punt from deep carried over Steve Bruce's head, but should have posed no problem, with Schmeichel always going to get to it before Chris Kiwomya. Easy? Too easy. The great Dane got there all right, but ended up in the 'sit' position, his standing leg sliding from under him as he aimed a fruitless hack at the ball. Kiwomya gratefully shot into the vacant net for his 15th, and easiest, goal of the season.

The die was cast. With United out of sorts in the mud, one goal seemed likely to be enough. Sharpe and Giggs, whose penetrative wingplay is fundamental to Mancunian wellbeing, were stymied for once by the treacherous surface and some assiduous marking, and Eric Cantona was in 'Pourquoi?' mode.

Sharpe, set up by Paul Ince and Brian McClair, did manage to bring a high-class save from Clive Baker, but it was Ipswich who created the lion's share of the chances, Kiwomya shivering a post at close range before they went further ahead.

Jason Dozzell was the provider, Yallop responding to a sit-up-and- beg lay-off with a screaming finish which left poor Schmeichel defenceless.

Game, set and match. United stirred themselves in the closing stages, but their goal was a fluky one, Cantona's shot falling to McClair via a fortuitous deflection, and a monstrous injustice was averted in the last minute when Baker made a blinding point-blank save from Hughes.

'No complaints,' Ferguson said. 'Ipswich are a good, hardworking side, and no one will relish playing against them. They are the hardest team in the league to play against. They know their strengths and play to them, they are good tactically, and I think they'll do very well.'

Hard-working? The hardest team in the league to play against? 'That's kind of Alex,' said their manager, Mick McGiven, 'but we can play a bit and score goals too, you know.' We know. With Sheffield Wednesday also on the up and up, the Coca-Cola Cup replay between the two sides at Hillsborough this week has all the makings.

Goals: Kiwomya (20) 1-0; Yallop (48) 2-0; McClair (84) 2-1.

Ipswich Town: Baker; Johnson, Thompson, Williams, Whelan, Linighan, Yallop, Guentchev (Wark, 87), Bozinoski (Stockwell, 87), Dozzell, Kiwomya. Substitute not used: Forrest (gk).

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

Referee: J Key (Rotherham).