Football Commentary: Exhibition to belie international image: United and Norwich in full flow - Spurs' skills go unrewarded - City made to suffer - Wednesday prey on weaknesses

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The Independent Online
EGIL OLSEN must have been pinching himself all the way back to Oslo. Norway's Anglophile manager was at Old Trafford on Saturday and, in common with the 23 countries who tuned in live, he was left wondering how on earth his team are going to the World Cup when England are not.

Manchester United and Norwich City had strengthened their reputations as the most attractive sides in the country by producing a thrill-a- minute 2-2 draw of a quality the Norwegians can only dream about, and Olsen headed for the airport shaking his head in puzzled admiration.

How could England's club football rise to such exhilarating peaks while the national team were in their deepest trough? Mike Walker had provided the answer in these columns on Saturday. At international level, the tactics and personnel were wrong.

United are running away with the League playing with two wingers; Norwich have mastered, and made a success of, the sweeper system. These two contrasting strategies - the broad-based attack and the cat-and-mouse counter - are both deemed to be beyond an England team all too rarely freed from their 4-4-2 straitjacket.

Or so it was under the late, unlamented regime. Given the present clamour, and climate, for change, there is reason to expect more enlightened direction from the new manager, whoever he may be.

In the meantime, the mood at Old Trafford called to mind the words of the Iron Lady after the liberation of South Georgia. 'Just rejoice' that English club football can still be the envy of Europe.

Norwich dominated the first half, playing so well for a 20-minute spell that United were unable to get the ball off them. Alex Ferguson's size nines made painful contact with a posterior or two during the interval, and the champions came on strong in the second half, when they might easily have won it.

Overall, though, a point apiece was the fairest outcome to a match neither side deserved to lose.

Norwich were without Ian Crook, their playmaker, and two penetrative finishers in Efan Ekoku and Mark Robins, but there is strength and depth at Carrow Road these days, and the reserves were not found wanting. Far from it in the case of Colin Woodthorpe, a bargain buy from Chester City, who distinguished himself in the unfamiliar role of centre-back.

Unbeaten in the League since early September and 14 points clear at the kick-off, United can hardly have expected a start which saw them pinned back and outplayed for the first half-hour.

Norwich were quickly into that pleasing passing pattern, and would have been 2-0 up inside 10 minutes but for Denis Irwin's goal-line intervention to thwart Chris Sutton and the plunging save with which Peter Schmeichel repelled a hooked volley from Lee Power.

Ruel Fox's pacy, insidious runs and Sutton's livewire leadership of the line panicked United's defence in general, and Gary Pallister in particular, into a succession of mistakes, and Jeremy Goss might have scored with a header from Sutton's cross before the first goal finally arrived, on the half-hour.

Perversely, after Norwich had played so well, it was United who scored it - Eric Cantona's cross from the right touchline evading both Mark Hughes and Ian Culverhouse in reaching the far post, where Ryan Giggs steered it in.

In the time it took to say injustice, Sutton had equalised, thumping the ball home from 20 yards after Schmeichel had pushed out Fox's initial strike.

Marvellous stuff. To blink was to risk missing a clever Norwich pass or a deft Cantona flick. United's coruscating class is such that they will always be dangerous, even when they are not at their best, and Brian McClair had them in front again before half-time, courtesy of Cantona's imaginative approach work.

Again justice was quickly administered, Fox releasing Sutton with a bisecting through-pass which had Pallister pulling the striker to the floor. Fox made short work of the penalty, and at 2-2 you wanted it to go on for ever.

For Norwich, it seemed like it did. United waxed stronger the longer it went on, and Cantona threatened three times in as many minutes, with a chip headed off the line by Mark Bowen, a volley well saved and a header which had Bryan Gunn diving to his right to make a spectacular one-handed stop.

By that stage, it has to be said, the volatile Frenchman was lucky to be on the field, having got away with a nasty retaliatory kick at Culverhouse. The referee, Martin Bodenham, decided a free-kick was sufficient punishment for a foul which might have done serious damage, then booked Gunn for 'verbals'. Ludicrous.

The players, at least, were making the right decisions, and Pallister demanded another goal-line clearance from Bowen, McClair volleyed against the crossbar from six yards and Giggs flashed a near-post header tantalisingly wide as United cranked up the pressure in pursuit of yet another win.

That they were denied it was testimony to a resilience which should serve Norwich well in Milan on Wednesday. They are going to need it.

One-nil down to Internazionale from the home leg of their Uefa Cup tie, they will have a daunting task further complicated by the absence of three important players - Culverhouse, Crook and Ian Butterworth - all suspended.

The loss of Culverhouse, the sweeper, is likely to be the greatest handicap. Walker says the only other player equipped to perform this pivotal role properly is Crook, who is also unavailable. In the circumstances, Norwich may have to change their shape, and use an orthodox back four.

It was important to be positive, Walker said, and both Ekoku and John Polston would be fit to return, if required. Playing in the San Siro was a 'tremendous challenge', but it was no more intimidating than facing United at Old Trafford, and 'this result won't have done us any harm'.

Norwich travel today with United's good wishes. Ferguson said: 'They gave us a wonderful game; I really enjoyed it. They're a good football team, and we all hope they do well on Wednesday.'

Amen to that.

Goals: Giggs (30) 1-0; Sutton (31) 1-1; McClair (41) 2-1; Fox pen (47) 2-2.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, McClair, Ince, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes (Sharpe, 72). Substitutes not used: Ferguson, Sealey (gk).

Norwich City (1-4-3-2): Gunn; Culverhouse; Newman, Butterworth (Sutch, 45), Woodthorpe, Bowen; Goss, Megson, Fox (Eadie, 78); Sutton, Power. Substitute not used: Howie (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).

(Photograph omitted)