Charlton Athletic. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
IN THE supposed year of the underdog, it was always difficult to see Manchester United fitting into the role of snapping terriers. Oldham at Bolton perhaps, but who could be giant enough to loom over the leviathans of Old Trafford?
Well Charlton, actually. True, it needed something drastic in the shape of a kamikaze goalkeeper, but, by half-time on Saturday, if the wheels were not actually falling off the champions' treble bandwagon, there was the nagging noise of a loose nut or two.
Peter Schmeichel had been sent off, United had been the worse side before the interval and Charlton seemed to be gaining in confidence. Carl Leaburn was winning most aerial challenges while Darren Pitcher and Alan Pardew were strutting around midfield as if they were the internationals and not Roy Keane and Paul Ince.
But the underdog, even in the unlikely guise of 10-man United, often has some tricks to bring out from the kennel - hard labour and attacks on the break - and United flourished them with a vengeance. Leaving only Eric Cantona up front, the remaining eight outfield players ran and tackled as if they were a Third Division outfit seeking to unsettle some posing dandys from the Premiership.
The only difference is that few teams from the Football League could strike with their speed and decisiveness. Once Mark Hughes had given United the lead 52 seconds after the half-time interval, Charlton had to attack in greater numbers and walked straight into a trap.
Andrei Kanchelskis's crosses can leave spectators as well as his team- mates tearing their hair with frustration, but he has a better sense of where the goal is than most wingers, and he scored his sixth and seventh of the season. Both followed exhilarating charges from the halfway line after passes from Cantona, for the Ukrainian's first, and Ryan Giggs, and each was dispatched with the accomplishment of a latter-day Denis Law. As a result Leaburn's header after 77 minutes amounted only to consolation.
Alex Ferguson, the United manager, agreed that the sending-off had turned the match. 'The players were angry,' he said. 'They were charging up the tunnel to get back on the pitch at half-time. If a footballer has a personal, inner determination it makes the job easy for a manager.'
Ferguson did not make the task of the referee any easier by announcing that United intend to appeal on the grounds that the ball hit Schmeichel's hand rather than the other way round. He also disputed that the Danish keeper's halting of Kim Grant 20 yards outside his area prevented a goal, as the home team had two defenders between the Charlton striker and the goal.
Nonsense, of course. The Dane spread himself in the manner of making a save and put his hands in a position where the ball was more likely to hit them. Even if Mr Hart had been lenient over the handball there was still the matter of Schmeichel's follow-through.
The controversy about the decision is not about whether Schmeichel should have to leave - and miss the Coca-Cola Cup final - but whether Les Sealey, another goalkeeper, should have come on. No one can condemn United for playing to the rules, but the law looks slightly ass-like on these occasions.
Still, it gave Sealey an opportunity to give a cameo of obstructionism afterwards. After being asked to talk to journalists he arrived with the words 'I don't talk to the press.' Why did you come here then? 'I was told to.' Thanks, Les.
Goals: Hughes (46) 1-0; Kanchelskis (71) 2-0; Kanchelskis (75) 3-0; Leaburn (77) 3-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker (Sealey, gk, 44), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs; Hughes, Cantona. Substitutes not used: Robson, McClair.
Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Vaughan; Brown, McLeary, Balmer, Minto; Robson, Pitcher, Pardew, Nelson; Grant (Walsh, 56), Leaburn. Substitutes not used: Chapple, Bolder (gk).
Referee: R Hart (Darlington).
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