Manchester United. . .5
MANCHESTER UNITED rounded off a memorable year at Boundary Park last night by contemptuously avenging one of their five defeats during 1993, as well as reaching two remarkable landmarks.
A hugely entertaining derby demolition of Oldham, who had boldly traded blow for blow in a burst of four goals in the opening 25 minutes, sends the champions and runaway leaders into a New Year's Day visit of Leeds 14 points clear of the nearest challengers. They have now lost only once in 33 League games since Oldham upset them 1-0 last March.
Victory also took United's haul of Premiership points over the past 12 months to 102, while their final goal raised their tally in domestic fixtures over the same period to 100.
Once again, Eric Cantona was tres formidable, collecting his 14th goal of the season and setting up three others. Ryan Giggs scored twice, and if some of United's defending was unusually sloppy it was only the excellence of Jon Hallworth in Oldham's goal that prevented their reaching double figures.
Matches between the two clubs have a habit of being high-scoring affairs. In the 1990 FA Cup semi-final they drew 3-3 while on Boxing Day the following year United won 6-3 at Oldham. With Joe Royle's side adopting an approach which was cavalier bordering on kamikaze, it was quickly evident that the tradition would be upheld.
Alex Ferguson had restored Andrei Kanchelskis for the injured Mark Hughes. His preference may have disappointed Bryan Robson and Brian McClair, but was vindicated as early as the fourth minute when the Ukrainian fired United ahead after a one-two with Cantona.
Oldham's customary enterprise was rewarded 12 minutes later when Dennis Irwin, their former player, cleared Rick Holden's centre straight to the lurking Graeme Sharp. The veteran Scot's low drive from 18 yards beat Peter Schmeichel's dive, but United were back in front by the 19th minute.
Giggs's back-heeled pass released Kanchelskis, whose pace burned off Chris Makin before Tore Pedersen tripped him on the edge of the box. Cantona scored with a flourish from the spot, and the Norwegian could count himself lucky not to be sent off.
Irwin provided another 'assist' as Oldham again drew level. His foul on Richard Graham near the corner flag gave the hosts a free-kick, which Holden curled in towards the far post. Schmeichel misjudged the ball's flight as it dipped over his outstretched arms.
That was the end of the tit- for-tat scoring; it was as if United had tired of exchanging festive gifts with the neighbours. Hallworth found out the hard way, making a stunning save from Giggs in the 39th minute only for his defenders to allow Steve Bruce a free header from Irwin's corner.
Nine minutes after the interval, with Oldham appealing naively for an offside flag, Giggs raced on to Cantona's clever angled pass and scored off the hapless Richard Jobson. The Frenchman, almost inevitably, was also behind the fifth goal, crossing to the far post where Lee Sharpe headed back across goal for Giggs to scramble the ball home from all of six inches out.
McClair, on as a substitute as Ferguson sought to rest Cantona with Saturday's Roses battle in mind, might have claimed a hat-trick as the red shirts carved through Oldham at will in the later stages, and the United manager was not exaggerating when he said it could have finished 10-5.
Oldham Athletic (4-5-1): Hallworth; Fleming, Jobson, Pedersen, Makin; Halle, Milligan, Graham (Adams, h/t), Bernard, Holden; Sharp. Substitutes not used: Ritchie, Gerrard (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince (Robson, 64), Keane, Sharpe; Cantona (McClair, 64), Giggs. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).
Referee: V Callow (Solihull).