Football: Giggs displays the arts that England lack: United move clear in show of class

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AFTER Black Wednesday we turned to the Theatre of Dreams in search of reassurance, but came away from a curate's egg of a match no better off.

A classic between Manchester United and Tottenham was supposed to assuage the memory of England's World Cup demise, but it never quite materialised. Instead, a workmanlike rather than inspired 2-1 win took United seven points clear at the top, threatening to turn the Premiership into a procession.

That's all we need. A one-horse race for the title would be about as exciting as England's sterile future, without a competitive match for three years.

In fairness, Old Trafford packed to the rafters with its biggest audience of the season (44,655) did supply heartening proof that League attendances are not entirely dependent on international success. The best team in the country also provided a timely reminder that we do have world-class players in the domestic game.

Unfortunately, when their names are Giggs, Cantona and Keane, there is little encouragement there for Uncle Tom Cobley - the new favourite to replace You Know Who.

Kevin Keegan, Ron Atkinson and Gerry Francis have led a mad rush to be included out, but perhaps they protest too much. It is hard to imagine a heart-on-the-sleeve patriot like Keegan refusing to serve his country, if asked.

The match of the day will have given the contenders, whoever they may be, much food for thought. United and Spurs play the game the way most would have England play, but at times on Saturday they brought on distressing attacks of midweek deja vu.

With the possible exception of Norwich City, these two are probably the best passing teams in the country, yet some of their distribution - United's crossing, in particular - was more Palmer and Adams than Overmars and Roy.

For all the good intentions of Ferguson, Atkinson, Ardiles and others, we are never going to match the Dutch, or any of the top countries, at their own measured game while our club football is played at pell-mell pace.

Disturbingly, the foot remains hard down on the gas rather than the brake, militating against improvement and renewed progress at international level, and vested interests suggest the situation is unlikely to change.

England's plight is not Alex Ferguson's concern, of course. His brief is to win things with Manchester United, and a good job he is making of it, too.

United were not at their best on Saturday but, having had so many players away on international duty in midweek, they could be excused a slightly jaded look. Below par or not, they were still good enough to dominate the match from first to last, doing enough to have won by a more convincing margin, and prompting Ardiles to point up the very real danger of them 'running away with the championship'.

Spurs are not strong enough to stop them. Was anybody else? 'At the moment,' the Argentinian mused, 'I would say the answer is no.'

Any hope Tottenham had of interrupting their progress towards another title disappeared with Teddy Sheringham, who withdrew after only 20 minutes with a twisted knee. The loss of the Premiership's leading scorer, and the absence of Darren Anderton with a groin strain, threw too heavy a burden on young Nick Barmby, who was making his first appearance of the season after surgery on his shins.

Without Sheringham to lead the line, Spurs were pretty, as ever, in midfield, but lightweight in attack, and were flattered by the closeness of the score.

United could also point to a notable absentee, England's Paul Ince failing a late test on the ankle he damaged in Rotterdam. To Ferguson's relief, the most dynamic midfielder in the country is expected to return for Wednesday's European Cup date with Galatasaray.

An unsung reserve - one B Robson - filled Saturday's vacancy well enough to suggest he may get another chance.

After a sluggish start, during which Sheringham should have scored with a free header, United were lifted by a moment of magic from Ryan Giggs, who skipped past Darren Caskey and then David Kerslake on the left touchline before delivering a cross which was scrambled away for a corner. Inspirational stuff.

The ground echoed to to the sigh 'If only . . .' from 40,000 Englishmen.

Duly galvanised, United were up and running. It took a last-ditch tackle by David Howells to dispossess Lee Sharpe in front of goal and Eric Cantona shot wastefully wide after some lovely one-touch approach work.

Spurs were under mounting pressure and yet, completely against the run of play, they created the best chance of the first half, when Barmby's clever through pass let in Steve Sedgley for a low shot which brought an athletic, reaching response from Peter Schmeichel.

Norway's Erik Thorstvedt further enhanced the reputation of Scandinavian goalkeepers by getting down smartly to thwart Mark Hughes, but could scarcely believe his good fortune when Gary Pallister headed over from four yards.

That luck ran out after 65 minutes, when Roy Keane embellished a vigorous, driving contribution with a typical goal, volleyed home from the edge of the penalty area. Sharpe, profiting from a ghastly howler by Howells, drilled in the second from near the penalty spot, and that was that.

Not quite, actually. Schmeichel failed to intercept a right-wing cross from Vinny Samways, allowing the ball to reach Justin Edinburgh, who cut it back from the byline on the left for Caskey to score.

Spurs thought they spied light at the end of the tunnel, but if they did it was the 4.30 from Manchester coming to run them down, with Cantona (twice) and Brian McClair threatening to widen the margin.

Ferguson praised his team for 'finishing the stronger', and added 'our running power was tremendous'. Quite right, too, but strength and power was not exactly what the uncommitted had come looking for after wretched Rotterdam. It is going to take rather more than Duracell batteries to light the torch England dropped in the mire of the Feyenoord stadium.

Goals: Keane (65) 1-0; Sharpe (69) 2-0; Caskey (73) 2-1.

Manchester United (4-3-3): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Sharpe, Robson (McClair, 70), Keane; Hughes, Cantona, Giggs (Butt, 79). Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-1-3-2): Thorstvedt; Kerslake, Howells, Mabbutt, Campbell; Samways; Caskey, Dozzell, Sedgley; Sheringham (Moran, 20) (Edinburgh, 69), Barmby. Substitute not used: Walker (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy)

(Photograph omitted)