Football Commentary: Hughes rises to the title challenge

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The Independent Online
'THAT was some football today,' Alex Ferguson enthused. John Fitzpatrick begged to differ. Lured back to Old Trafford for the first time in 10 years by the visit of the League leaders, he had been profoundly disappointed. Where was the passion? Where were the George Bests and Denis Laws?

Another old warrior quickly put him straight. There were no Bests and Laws these days, Paddy Crerand said. In any case, it was wrong to talk of them in the plural. These were unique, once in a lifetime players.

Times had changed, Crerand told his old comrade. What they had just seen was today's best, albeit with a lower case b. He was as romantic as any Paddy, but the modern game was faster than the one they played a generation ago, and allowances had to be made.

Manchester United may lack the superstars they had in their time, but they had beaten Norwich City, the runaway leaders, more convincingly than the 1-0 scoreline would suggest, and were up to third. In what is turning out to be a non-vintage - some would say bad - year, they again have an excellent chance of winning the title which has been their holy grail since the Busby team of fond memory were in their pomp.

To some extent, Fitzpatrick was right. Saturday's play did lack the passion one might have expected from a match of such significance. Norwich were keen to refute suggestions that they are no more than pacemakers; United knew they had to win to stay in touch. It should have been blood and thunder stuff. Instead, it was a decent game - no more, no less.

With hindsight, those who like their football seasoned with fire and fervour were probably in the wrong place. Norwich possess many qualities but devilment is not among them, and United are never the same intimidating prospect when Bryan Robson is absent, as he was here, with a minor groin strain.

Ferguson decided, perceptively, that he could afford to rest his battle-scarred captain against the side who play without a ball-winner in midfield, thereby guaranteeing his fitness for what is likely to be a more combative scrap at Chelsea on Saturday.

Eric Cantona for Robson is an unlikely change, but Norwich at home is one of few fixtures in which it makes sense. The leaders play a constructive, passing game, rather than a destructive one, and the Frenchman, given his first start, was in his element. The increasingly familiar flicks, feints, and intelligent distribution had them all oohing and aahing in appreciation - Fitzpatrick included.

Nobody, one senses, is more appreciative than Mark Hughes, who has unloaded some of the burden of expectation with Cantona's arrival. Attention is now focused on the crowd-pleasing newcomer, rather than the Welshman's goalscoring record and, with the pressure relieved, the goals have started to go in - four in the last four games.

The latest, his 10th of the season, was something of a gift, courtesy of a screaming error by Daryl Sutch, but if it was not as spectacular as some of Hughes' netbursters, it was all the more welcome for that, as Ferguson explained.

'It was a goalscorer's goal,' the United manager said. 'Normally, Mark gets people on their feet with the brilliance of his goals. Today he got them on their feet because of the goal's importance.'

Norwich were left with half an hour in which to respond and, given their record, Old Trafford held its breath, then let it out in the form of premature whistles. Fifteen of their 34 goals have come in the last 15 minutes. This time, though, it was not to be, and they failed to score for the first time in the 19 games which have carried them five points clear at the top.

Undermined by the loss of their playmaker, Ian Crook, after only 16 minutes, their passing lacked purpose, and they rarely looked like penetrating the most parsimonious defence in the country.

Their only chance of consequence fell to Mark Robins, who would have turned Ferguson's face United red had his first-half shot gone in, instead of hitting Peter Schmeichel's legs. The young striker's success since his transfer from Old Trafford to Carrow Road has been central to Norwich's success, and his continued productivity is essential to their wellbeing. It is difficult to see anyone else scoring enough goals to sustain their challenge.

Judging them on one off-day, which this was, would be unfair, but viewed in the context of their 4-1 defeat at Liverpool, and that 7-1 drubbing at Blackburn, here was further evidence of the fallibility of their centre-halves who are turned and passed too easily, and of the unreliability of their right-back, Ian Culverhouse, who is more effective going forward than he is when required to defend.

Among the favourites for relegation at the start of the season, Norwich's against-the-odds progress is doing the game nothing but good, yet they remain implausible champions.

Mike Walker, their manager, reacted to suggestions that they lack the required strength in depth by reeling off the names of Megson, Power, Goss, Newman, Sutton and Ullathorne, none of whom were in Saturday's starting line-up, but no one looked convinced.

Walker himself continues to insist that avoiding relegation is his first target, and regards a top six finish as a 'realistic' objective, which sounds about right.

United, of course, must aim higher. Much higher. After four successive wins the bandwagon is rolling again, cranking up the pressure.

'Our problem, ' Ferguson said, 'is that when we're high we're very high, but one defeat and everybody plunges us into crisis. One defeat can create a slump because you lot (the press) give us so much attention.'

Journalistic rottweilers apart, who else does he have to worry about? Just about everyone, it seems. 'It's a strange season,' he mused. 'Last year, we lost four games and lost the League; this time we've lost four already, and we're very much in contention. Maybe an outsider could win it.'

An encouraging send off for Norwich as they jetted out for a four-day sunshine break. To the Canaries, naturally.

Goal: Hughes (59).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Kanchelskis, Digby, Blackmore.

Norwich City: Gunn; Culverhouse, Bowen, Butterworth, Polston, Sutch, Crook (Megson, 16), Beckford (Sutton, 74), Robins, Fox, Phillips. Substitute not used: Marshall.

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).