Manchester United. . .2
IT took United eight months to knock the belief out of Norwich last season. This time they needed no more than the 25 minutes Ryan Giggs required to make his mark and get the champion's defence of their title away to a flying start.
United resumed where they had left off in May with all the confidence of a team lauded as the best in the country, while Norwich played like opponents who knew their place. That place was third last time - a position which, on this anaemic showing, they will do well to repeat.
A year ago, on opening day, the pride of East Anglia first hinted at their unheralded championship candidacy by coming back from a 2-0 deficit at Arsenal to win 4-2. That sort of spirit, and finishing power, was conspicuously absent yesterday, when United won with a gear to spare.
They had plenty in reserve literally, too, with Eric Cantona absent, injured, and internationals of the calibre of Brian McClair and Lee Sharpe confined to the bench.
It was a significant win. Early days these may be, but by the end Norwich looked as deflated as they were on 5 April, when United won 3-1 at Carrow Road to knock the Canaries off their perch at the top of the table, and set up their own historic triumph.
The popular perception is that the distractions of Europe will undermine them in the League, enabling anyone of half a dozen pretenders to dethrone them. A plausible theory it may be, but yesterday such talk sounded suspiciously like whistling in the dark.
They won comfortably and they won well, restricting Norwich to just two goal attempts, neither of which carried real conviction.
In the absence of Cantona, nursing a strain behind the knee, United promoted Bryan Robson to perform a central role in a midfield unlikely to be equalled in terms of competitive spirit. Afterwards Alex Ferguson said: 'Bryan was marvellous out there today, he is just so defiant. He's not going to give in or accept the fact that anyone could possibly take his place.'
Apart from the old warrior, steaming into tackles, they had Paul Ince and Roy Keane ferreting away with a vigour which kept Norwich permanently on the back foot.
For more than half the game they paid the champions exaggerated respect, sitting back in defensive posture with Ian Culverhouse sweeping behind three centre-halves.
Presented with the initiative, United put it to good use, and Robson had threatened twice before Giggs put them ahead.
It was an untidy, up-and-under sort of opening, Bryan Gunn's defence failing to combat the header with which Keane met Denis Irwin's corner and Mark Hughes hoisting the ball into the middle, where the goalkeeper could do no more than touch it on to the crossbar. If the build-up left something to be desired, the finish was top notch, the Welsh prodigy fastening on to the rebound and burying a left-foot volley from six yards.
Passive through the first half Norwich perked up a little in the second and Peter Schmeichel was extended overhead in keeping out Mark Robins' strong shot from the right.
The fightback was all too brief. Ince played the ball into the penalty area, Hughes laid it off invitingly and Robson drove home low, from 15 yards. With 57 minutes gone, it was all over.
Hughes might have doubled the margin but had a meaty header saved and miscued horribly at close range. United could afford to be charitable. Ferguson professed himself 'well satisfied' with performance and result.
The laconic Mike Walker sought to play down a bad day at the office. 'It was only one game,' he said. The disappointment on his players' faces told another story.
Norwich City (1-3-4-2): Gunn; Culverhouse; Butterworth, Polston, Newman; Bowen, Crook, Goss, Fox; Sutton, Robins (Ekoku, 70). Substitues not used: Megson, Howie (gk).
Manchester United (4,5,1): Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister; Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Giggs, Robson; Hughes. Substitutes not used: McClair, Sharpe, Sealey (gk).
Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).
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