Football: Di Canio dents United's pride

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Atherton 26, Di Canio 88 Manchester United 0 Attendance:39,427
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UNITED held their own among the millionaires in Monte Carlo, but a trip across the Pennines to the city that produced The Full Monty proved an altogether tougher proposition.

In fact Alex Ferguson would probably prefer to travel anywhere other than South Yorkshire after his experiences of the past 10 days. Bundled out of the FA Cup at Barnsley, he yesterday saw his lead in the Premiership stripped back to nine points somewhere more renowned for steelworkers with their kit off than football players with their kit on.

There were signs that United's exertions against Monaco in midweek had taken their toll. Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin were both injured, Teddy Sheringham rarely got into the game and the Premiership's leading scorer, Andy Cole, looked uncharacteristically lethargic in front of goal.

But after a slow start, Wednesday looked sharp, and, once their captain Peter Atherton had edged them in front with his second goal of the season, they never looked like surrendering the advantage.

They did, of course, have something to prove. They were thrashed 6-1 at Old Trafford in November, a defeat that precipitated the sacking of manager David Pleat and the second coming of Ron Atkinson.

Yet United started as though they might repeat that indignity. David Beckham hoisted a 20-yard free-kick over the bar in the first minute and Sheringham released Cole down the middle, only for the striker to give early warning of the kind of afternoon he was to have by shooting tamely at Kevin Pressman.

United's pressure should have been rewarded in the 17th minute when a curling Beckham cross from the right found Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with the goal gaping only for Pressman to appear from nowhere to palm the ball away.

It proved the end of United's early dominance. Wednesday forced their first corner after 27 minutes, scored from it and never looked back. Atherton rose above the ruck in the six- yard box to head Benito Carbone's kick powerfully beyond Raimond Van Der Gouw for his second goal of the season.

Paul Scholes came on as substitute for the concussed Ronny Johnsen at half-time and immediately rattled the bar. He and Cole both wasted further opportunities to level the scores but, as the game progressed, Wednesday's belief grew that they could not only hold on to their lead but increase it.

With Petter Rudi injured and Graham Hyde starting a two-match ban, they had looked exposed in midfield. But, once Carbone began to drop behind fellow strikers Andy Booth and Di Canio, Wednesday found they could penetrate United's cover almost at will.

His sweeping pass to Di Canio would have produced a second goal had not Van Der Gouw spread himself to block the shot, and Wednesday hit both crossbar and post before the champions could sound the all-clear on another raid.

Inevitably, Carbone was the provider when Wednesday finally clinched it two minutes from time. He took a quick free kick to Di Canio and ran to the by-line for the return. His cross was nodded down by Guy Whittingham, and Di Canio's overhead scissors kick had crossed the line before any Manchester United defender could make contact.

"When we went behind I thought it would be an uphill struggle, and so it proved," Ferguson said afterwards. A hamstring injury to Phil Neville added to the problems he faces before the return leg with Monaco. Atkinson said: "Pressman's first half save was the turning point. It gave us confidence and once you have that the game will go for you." For a change, confidence is a commodity Ferguson must now find before United face Monaco again.