Brighton & Hove Albion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0
ONE GLORIOUS strike from Ryan Giggs' left foot was sufficient to reinforce the belief in these parts that Manchester United are capable of winning both the Premier League Championship and the FA Cup this season.
This fourth-round victory was scarcely a vintage performance, more the product of honest persistence. But at least the goal was scored by the tie's outstanding individual, a fiendish free-kick converted 14 minutes from the end. Brighton, who took United to a replay in the 1983 final, were that close to another second chance, though, in truth, their limited quality and imagination left them chasing an improbable dream for most of the second half.
Old Trafford was almost eerily subdued during the opening skirmishes, United's supporters seemingly sitting back expecting the goals to flow as a matter of course. Eight wins and two draws from the previous ten matches suggested Brighton were here to make up the numbers.
But, as in their Coca-Cola Cup meeting earlier this season, the Second Division side provided stubborn resistance and United, without Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis, were bereft of power and variety.
Ryan Giggs represented a splendid exception but neither Brian McClair nor the erratic Danny Wallace offered sustained support. Giggs required the early ball, the opportunity to run at defenders. Too often, however, he and McClair strained in vain to challenge Steve Foster and Nicky Bissett in the air. Even Lee Sharpe, who has made such a contribution to United's ascendancy, was frustratingly consistent.
At last Giggs was released on one of those mesmeric runs, yet the veteran Clive Walker had sufficient pace to stifle the youngster. Gary Pallister ought to have done better than head wide from a corner after 33 minutes, and two minutes later Brighton were rueing a miss of their own. Walker, still superbly agile and dangerous, crossed from the left, Peter Schmeichel was unable to cope and you could almost hear a chorus of 'And Bissett must score'. Alas, for the central defender, his lunging header merely bulged the side netting and another United goalkeeper sighed with relief.
Giggs again raided Brighton's area early in the second half and brought a leaping save from Mark Beeney. Schmeichel, at the other end, was grateful that Kurt Nogan could not manage a firmer contact as he hurled himself at Robert Codner's cross.
Wallace limped off after 54 minutes to make way for Keith Gillespie, the young winger who played an impressive part in the defeat of Bury in the third round, but it was the old campaigner, Walker, who again almost delivered the decisive ball in this tie. Andy Kennedy arrived just too late to turn it past the exposed Schmeichel.
Paul Ince was twice close to forcing the breakthrough for United with lunging headers from Sharpe's corner kicks, yet there remained little evidence of the marauding football which has taken United to the top of the league.
Even so, Sharpe should have scored in the 70th minute when Beeney blocked McClair's path and the ball broke to the edge of the area. Sharpe's weaker right foot hoisted the ball over the bar. McClair then failed to capitalise on another assault by Ince and when the Scot finally planted the ball in Brighton's net his celebrations were cut short by a linesman indicating he was offside.
United's pressure was now relentless and they took the lead courtesy of Giggs' genius after 76 minutes. Foster's foul on Gillespie on United's right flank gave Giggs the opportunity from the free-kick and his left-foot shot defied Beeney's attempt to save.
Another free-kick almost led to another goal for United. This time Denis Irwin tried his luck but, although he beat Beeney, the ball struck the bar.
Manchester United: P Schmeichel, P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, D Wallace (K Gillespie, 54 min), P Ince, B McClair, M Phelan, R Giggs. Sub not used: L Martin. Manager: A Ferguson
Brighton: M Beeney, G Chivers, I Chapman, D Wilkins, S Foster, N Bissett, S Munday, A Kennedy (M Edwards, 82 min), K Nogan, R Codner, C Walker. Sub not used: J Crumplin. Manager: B Lloyd
Goal: Giggs (1-0, 75 min).
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
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