Football Commentary: United draw on reserves to keep on course

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The Independent Online
MINUTES before the end of a relentlessly engrossing conflict, with Manchester United's 2-0 defeat of Liverpool practically secure, the latest in an occasional series of spiteful indiscretions by Eric Cantona provoked an unusual reaction from Neil Ruddock.

The defender known as 'Razor' might once have throttled his assailant, but the Fifa directive demands subtler forms of retaliation. Ruddock went for the Frenchman's neck, yet only to restore his sartorial trademark, the erect collar, to limp normality. Old Trafford watched apprehensively: it was as if Lord Justice Taylor had confiscated Kenneth Clarke's cigar and trodden on it.

Cantona was unamused. Not since Vinnie Jones practised ball control on Paul Gascoigne has one player invaded another's space, as the jargon has it, quite so pointedly. Had Liverpool put the squeeze on the champions, which they had chances to do, the symbolic value of Ruddock's gesture would have been magnified. As it was, United should have been in no doubt that their collars had been felt again.

Six days earlier they lost to Leeds, over whom their mastery was previously absolute. A midweek European Cup victory, while eventually resounding, highlighted defensive inadequacies that better teams than Gothenburg will exploit. Then came Liverpool who, in terms of time and territory, dominated until the final third. United's schedule reveals eight similarly discomfiting fixtures in the next 28 days alone - not counting internationals - in such disparate locations as Burslem and Istanbul.

This chore of attrition had already forced Mark Hughes to sit out training for three weeks, the emasculating effects being all too obvious on Saturday. Meanwhile, Cantona still seems determined to tempt fate and referees, following up his lucky escape at Elland Road with a yellow card for fouling Ruddock. The depth of Alex Ferguson's squad looks sure to be tested.

United's youthful second string lead the Pontin's League, but with Robson, Phelan, Martin, Blackmore, Sealey and Dublin gone, the only experienced players not involved against Liverpool were Paul Parker and Roy Keane. All of which made the contribution of another 'reserve', Brian McClair, especially significant.

Despite the efforts of Paul Ince, United's liking for width meant they were were being overrun in the central area when the unsung Scot replaced Hughes. It proved the pivotal moment, particularly after Roy Evans responded by removing Liverpool's most creative player, Jan Molby, and gave the 'fresh legs' of Phil Babb his debut in an unfamiliar midfield role.

Although the first goal was not directly related to the substitutions, Liverpool's concentration may well have been disturbed. John Scales tried to find David James with a back-header without looking, allowing Andrei Kanchelskis to steal in and lob the keeper.

Ninety seconds later, McClair worked a one-two with Cantona before scoring his third goal in as many home games. While his journeyman qualities are never likely to be the reason small boys in Dulwich or Donegal commence a lifelong devotion to United, McClair's versatility and loyalty currently make him as important as anyone on the books.

He could even end up at right- back, where David May's ongoing unease was exposed by Steve McManaman. Peter Schmeichel had to be at his most agile to keep out one shot by the winger, though Jamie Redknapp almost made amends for wasting a first-half opportunity by quivering United's crossbar after the interval.

That was the last of half a dozen clear Liverpool chances, and McClair soon emerged to redress the midfield balance. 'We had to get him on against Molby, who was controlling the game, and from that point on we got much better,' Ferguson said. 'Substitutions are a manager's nightmare, but McClair's one of the few people who can get into the flow of a game straight away.'

Evans also saw the double switch as decisive. 'With hindsight, Alex's substitution may have been a good one and mine a bad one,' he said. 'We suddenly thought we were better than we were and started doing daft things at the back, which they capitalised on.'

The Liverpool manager was being unduly self-critical. Molby's fitness, and to a lesser extent that of John Barnes, does not match his finesse, and United were already gaining control. Where he did err was in his use of a square peg, Babb, in the round hole United were digging for their visitors. For an hour, though, they played with a spirit and simplicity Anfield used to have under copyright.

'Watch United win the lot,' the crowd bayed, their rapture tinged with relief. At the moment, however, the blue-collar values of Ince and McClair are making their one true artist, Cantona, look petulant and peripheral by comparison. Until he comes alive, and unless Ferguson reinforces his playing strength, the double Double will remain in the realms of fantasy.

Goals: Kanchelskis (73) 1-0; McClair (74) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; May, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince, Sharpe, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes (McClair, 60). Substitutes not used: Butt, Pilkington (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; R Jones, Scales, Ruddock, Bjornebye; Redknapp, Molby (Babb, 71), Barnes, McMananman; Fowler, Rush. Substitutes not used: Clough, Stensgaard (gk).

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).

(Photograph omitted)