Football: Edgy United hold their nerve

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The Independent Online

Manchester United 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0

A fifth vital goal in as many matches from Eric Cantona took Manchester United three points clear of Newcastle at the head of the Premiership.

Cantona's 50th-minute strike was worthy of breaking the deadlock in a game of much goalmouth action. Taking the ball in a far less threatening position than those from which lesser mortals had missed, the Frenchman first ran at the defence, but then seemed to be drifting towards the left bank of the penalty area with nothing very dramatic on his mind.

Having reached the angle that suited him, however, he pulled his left foot shot back past Ian Walker and low into the far corner.

Spurs had a valid complaint that they should have been awarded a corner immediately before the goal and not all their players had got themselves back into play when Philip Neville's clearance reached Cantona.

"I don't think Manchester United will have too many problems winning the title. You never get any decisions against them here," said the disgruntled Spurs manager, Gerry Francis.

"I was disappointed to hear that stuff," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, responded. "I can understand him being disappointed, but his players stopped playing and ours did the correct thing by carrying on. It was a performance of magnificence from Cantona. Everyone is chasing us now."

The goal came after a breathless first half during which both sides failed to take inviting chances. United began with an edginess that suggested they were all too aware that Spurs, who beat them 4-1 at White Hart Lane earlier this season, could upset their plans.

Peter Schmeichel had to leap to save Teddy Sheringham's fierce shot and then the same player's header from the corner flashed past the post.

The best chance of Tottenham's torrid first quarter fell to Chris Armstrong, when Steve Bruce inexplicably allowed Ruel Fox's lob to go past him. Armstrong was left free to run through at Schmeichel, but when he looked up there was the goalkeeper looming above him, and he could only shoot weakly into his upraised arms.

As United started to come into the game, Andy Cole, with what is coming to seem a cruel inevitability, missed an even better chance. Cole had helped to create the opening, battling to win a ball in midfield, but when Ryan Giggs' cleverly laid pass reached him on the penalty spot, he failed to make clean contact and pushed it at Walker.

Giggs later chipped on to the roof of the net, but the continuing threat of Tottenham was acknowledged by the way United changed their formation by putting three centre-backs in operation before half-time.

Of those three, David May can have rarely played a better game for United, working overtime against a Spurs attack revolving around Sheringham that was never less than dangerous.

Cole, taking his non-scoring run to five to match Cantona's more positive record, was replaced in the 72nd minute, while Giggs' frustration continued when he could not produce an end result to match his approach work by putting a stab past the post and hitting the bar from David Beckham's cross.

Sheringham remained irrepressible to the end, bringing Schmeichel into urgent action once more to tip over a dipping header and then forcing him to dive at his feet in injury time.

Goal: Cantona (51) 1-0.

Manchester United: (4-4-2) Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, May, P Neville (Beckham, 63); Giggs, Butt, Keane, Sharpe; Cole (McClair, 72), Cantona. Substitute not used: Scholes.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2) Walker; Austin, Campbell, Mabbutt (Nethercott, 50), Wilson; Fox, Dozzell, Howells, Sinton; Armstrong, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Edinburgh, Thorstvedt (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Bookings: Manchester United: Keane, Butt. Tottenham: Mabbutt.

Man of the match: May. Attendance: 50,157.

Premiership top three

P W D L F A Pts GD

Man Utd 32 20 7 5 59 30 67 +29

Newcastle 30 20 4 6 55 28 64 +27

Liverpool 31 17 8 6 60 27 59 +33

Remaining fixtures

NEWCASTLE: 4 Apr: Liverpool (a). 6 Apr: QPR (h). 8 Apr: Blackburn (a). 14 Apr: Aston Villa (h). 17 Apr: Southampton (h). 29 Apr: Leeds Utd (a). 2 May Nottm Forest (a). 5 May: Tottenham (h).

MANCHESTER UNITED: 6 Apr: Manchester City (a). 8 Apr: Coventry (h). 13 Apr: Southampton (a). 17 Apr: Leeds Utd (h). 28 Apr: Nottingham Forest (h). 5 May: Middlesbrough (a).

LIVERPOOL: 4 Apr: Newcastle (h). 6 Apr: Coventry (a). 8 Apr: West Ham (h). 16 Apr: Everton (a). 27 Apr: Middlesbrough (h). 1 May: Arsenal (a). 5 May: Manchester City (a).