Football: Coventry breathe life into championship

Coventry City 3 Manchester United 2
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The Independent Online
Coventry City 3 Manchester United 2

As the old year reaches its conclusion, there is new life in the race for the championship. Two goals in the last five minutes earned relegation- threatened Coventry an implausible victory at Highfield Road yesterday, at the same time cutting Manchester United's lead in the Premiership to five points.

United had only themselves to blame. Having shrugged off the setback of conceding an early goal to Noel Whelan by going ahead through Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, they rested on their laurels only to find them as prickly as holly.

After being pegged back to parity by Dion Dublin's penalty, the champions were shattered by a thrilling solo goal from Darren Huckerby with barely two minutes remaining.

Complacency is not a failing one associates with Alex Ferguson's teams, nor one he tolerates. The pursuit of perfection is relentless at Old Trafford. Yet it often appeared that several United players thought they were playing in an exhibition match, like the one they generously helped to stage for Coventry's David Busst.

Seldom can they have given the ball away so frequently, or defended as sloppily. Nor could any particular blame be attached to their rookie goalkeeper, Kevin Pilkington.

It was as if Ferguson's team had spent the festive period basking in the acclaim which greeted their Boxing Day defeat of Everton, after which the media universally agreed that a fifth title in six years was a formality. The United manager has repeatedly warned that no one ever wins the League in December. He cannot have expected Coventry to underline the message in such dramatic style.

The centre of United's defence was especially vulnerable. Gary Pallister met his aerial match in his one-time colleague Dublin, while Henning Berg struggled to contain Huckerby's scorching pace.

It was no surprise that the equaliser stemmed from a foul by the Norwegian on the former Newcastle striker. Neither was it any great shock that Ferguson, while conceding the legitimacy of the award, qualified his comments by claiming that Huckerby had repeatedly gone to ground unnecessarily.

United were already going through their party tricks - back-heeled passes, nonchalant flicks and dummies - when Coventry stunned them by seizing the lead. Whelan initiated the move, beating two defenders before slipping a pass to the overlapping Marcus Hall. Berg's challenge on Hall saw the ball break for Huckerby to cross to Dublin, whose lay-off was despatched by Whelan for his first goal since April.

Shaken out of their languor, United drew level shortly after the half hour following a break which demonstrated their facility for turning deep defence into devastating attack. George Boateng, Gordon Strachan's lively but naive new Dutch signing, spoiled a promising Coventry attack with a hurried pass in the visitors' 18-yard area. Seconds later, after penetrating passes by Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Solskjaer ghosted past Roland Nilsson to stroke home his sixth goal of the season.

A series of errors by Coventry enabled United to go in front soon after half-time. First, Magnus Hedman's poor clearance put David Burrows under pressure. When Whelan attempted to help out, he was hustled off the ball by David Beckham. Scholes seized possession and crossed low for Sheringham, almost on all fours, to head his 10th goal since the summer switch from Spurs.

That appeared to be that; United certainly seemed to think so. They had, after all, won 14 and drawn three of the previous 17 League encounters, not to mention taking 18 points compared with Coventry's three from the preceding six matches. Huckerby, though, is clearly not one for historical precedence.

In the 86th minute he tumbled under Berg's challenge, giving Dublin the opportunity to send the under-employed Pilkington the wrong way from the spot.

The excitement had scarcely died down than Huckerby was swerving past red-shirted opponents as if they were cones on a training pitch. Suddenly, he faced Peter Schmeichel's understudy. Maintaining his composure, he fired into the far corner of the net.

"Sky Blue Heaven" proclaimed a banner behind Hedman's goal. It was also a good day for those blues of a darker hue from Chelsea, and for all who prefer a race to a procession. For Ferguson, however, the memory may take the edge off his 56th birthday celebrations on New Year's Eve.

Goals: Whelan (13) 1-0; Solskjaer (31) 1-1; Sheringham (48) 1-2; Dublin pen (86) 2-2; Huckerby (88) 3-2.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Shaw, Williams, Burrows; Telfer, Boateng (Boland, 64), Whelan, Hall (Solvedt, 78); Dublin, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Soltvedt, Boland, Lightbourne, Shilton, Ogrizovic (gk).

Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Pilkington; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Johnsen (Curtis, 63); Beckham, Scholes, Giggs; Sheringham; Solskjaer (Butt, 71), Cole. Substitutes not used: Butt, McClair, Mulryne, Curtis, Culkin (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Coventry: Boland. United: Beckham.

Man of the match: Huckerby.

Attendance: 23,054.