Sheffield Wednesday finished third in the old First Division last season, and are good enough to have done even better this time. That they have not done so is down to three encumbrances: a debilitating spate of injuries, a sluggish start, when they drew too many games, and the dual distraction of their prolonged involvement in two knock-out competitions which will take them to Wembley twice in the next five weeks.
For those reasons, they have not been able to do full justice to their myriad talents in the League, but anyone wondering where to re-invest that Grand National flutter could do a lot worse than stick it on Wednesday next time around.
Against United, they were again without their preferred centre-halves, who are among the long-term casualties, and started with their fourth and fifth-choice strikers, yet they were the better side for most of the match, and could count themselves distinctly unlucky to lose 2-1 to a goal scored in the seventh minute of stoppage time.
They had been 1-0 up, and deservedly so, with only four minutes of the normal 90 remaining, and were justifiably aggrieved by the referee's reluctance to blow the final whistle. True, the game was of such quality that no impartial observer wanted it to end, but that was hardly the point. Seven minutes seemed excessive.
United, to their credit, showed the spirit of champions in scoring twice at the death to prise victory from the maw of defeat. Their performance was far from convincing, but with fortune smiling on them to this degree, their hour may well be at hand.
They will have to play better than this, though, if destiny is not to stand them up yet again. Wednesday ran through their midfield at will, and would surely have won had either Paul Warhurst or David Hirst been present to address their chances.
Instead, the two strikers Graham Taylor would love to have fit for the Netherlands' visit were convalesceing in the expectation of returning for Sunday's Coca-Cola final, and with Mark Bright 'resting' on the bench for most of the game, United had only Chris Waddle to worry about.
'Only' was quite enough. Waddle, as everyone keeps saying, has never played better, which means that with Barnes and Gascoigne in decline - temporary or permanent - he is easily England's most penetrative footballer. The sceptics, whose dubious argument is that the shuffler tends to shuffle into obscurity when the going gets tough, would have been won over by his sustained artistry in the hurly- burly of Old Trafford.
United's defence is the meanest of them all, yet here was Waddle, leaving the pacy Paul Parker for dead before putting over the most demanding of crosses from the left, then beating Lee Sharpe and Mark Hughes from a standing start, a la Matthews, to do the same from the right.
The League leaders could do nothing with him, his mesmeric dribbling panicking Paul Ince into conceding the penalty with which John Sheridan gave Wednesday the lead. If Waddle, in this form, is not in the squad Taylor announces on Thursday, it can only be for reasons which have nothing to do with ability. If the manager believes that he and Gascoigne, as playmakers who demand the ball all the time, cannot be accommodated in the same team, recent evidence suggests that Gazza should be the one left out.
Not that Wednesday are a one-man band. Far from it. Chris Woods was every inch the international goalkeeper, denying Brian McClair and Mark Hughes with saves of the highest order, and Carlton Palmer looks much more like an England player at centre- half than he ever has in midfield.
The Dutch derided coltish Carlton as a basketball player at the European Championship, but would have identified with, rather than laughed at, the facility he showed here for winning the ball decisively and bringing it out to turn defence into attack.
Palmer would seem to have found his niche. If he is to be anything more than a bit-part player at international level he needs to move permanently into central defence. He and the ageless Viv Anderson made it a frustrating afternoon for Eric Cantona and Hughes, the Great Survivor, who is still there, despite another modest return of 14 goals in 42 appearances.
Midfield was where the match should have been won and lost - or at least drawn, given normal timing. Playing with two wingers, United leave themselves short-staffed in the middle third of the pitch, and Wednesday sensibly elected to play through the central areas, where the distributive skills of Waddle and Sheridan, allied to the energetic grafting of Danny Wilson and Nigel Worthington, gave them a marked edge.
Playing the attractive, close-passing game which is their trademark, they had the upper hand until midway through the second half, when the introduction of Bryan Robson evened things up.
A turning point? Wednesday would say that came with an earlier substitution, after 61 minutes, when the referee, Michael Peck, pulled up lame, and gave way to his senior linesman, John Hilditch. The changeover took time, but seven minutes? Doubtful, to say the least.
The stand-in was quick to make his mark, awarding the Sheridan penalty within three minutes of assuming control, then playing on so long that the Pink had arrived before the last of Old Trafford's largest audience of the season (40,102) had left.
The longer it went on, the stronger United became and, amid something approaching hysteria, it was fitting that it should be Steve Bruce, the bravest of the brave, who transformed despair into delight with two headed goals - his first for six months.
The winner had Alex Ferguson and his assistant, Brian Kidd, cavorting as if they had won the League, to the inevitable accompaniment of 'Always look on the bright side of life'.
The Stones' 'Time is on my side' would have been more appropriate.
Goals: Sheridan pen (64) 0-1; Bruce (86) 1-1; Bruce (90) 2-1.
Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker (Robson, 68), Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Phelan, Sealey (gk).
Sheffield Wednesday: Woods; Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Sheridan, Anderson, Wilson (Bart-Williams, 60), Waddle, King, Jemson (Bright, 53), Watson. Substitute not used: Pressman (gk).
Referee: M Peck (Kendal), replaced by J Hilditch (Stoke-on-Trent).
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