Football: Giggs gives United the advantage: Wednesday's resilience not quite enough

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Sheffield Wednesday. . . . . . . . . . . . .0

ALEX FERGUSON calls the treble an impossible dream but after this Coca-Cola Cup semi- final first leg yesterday at least one part of it came sharper into focus. Manchester United will travel to Hillsborough in nine days' time with a one-goal start and as favourites to reach Wembley.

A measure of Wednesday's task is that United, unbeaten in 31 games, have not lost by more than one goal since August 1992. They will be playing, too, on a ground where they have scored six times in their last two visits.

'The tie has swung in our favour,' Ferguson said. 'The important thing in a two- legged tie is to win the first match and we've done that. Wednesday will have to come at us. We'll have more space and we're are a very good counter-attack team.'

United's advantage was wrested from a Wednesday team that discarded any cavalier notions. This was a craggy, resilient performance built on hard labour and ferocious tackling. Des Walker was foot perfect at the back while their greatest influences were their midfield terriers, Carlton Palmer and Graham Hyde, rather than their artists, Chris Waddle and David Hirst.

'We got the sympathy vote last year,' Trevor Francis, their manager said, 'for being one of the best footballing teams in the country and we ended up winning nothing. We set out to stop them playing.'

They would have halted the red tide completely had it not been for an error by Roland Nilsson. The Wednesday full- back had already signalled that communications between himself and Kevin Pressman were not what they should be when he headed over his goalkeeper to concede a corner. He got away with that, but suffered for his next mistake after 19 minutes.

This time he left his back- pass short and Ryan Giggs, whose awareness of potential vulnerability had encouraged him to make a run of 30 yards, swooped. The United winger's first touch took him round Pressman and he was still at full pelt when he was faced with an angle so narrow a cross seemed his only option.

Instead Giggs rolled the ball in. The margin for error was minuscule, but his touch was perfect.

The goal apart, United's much-vaunted attack flickered and spluttered but never properly functioned. Eric Cantona was subdued and Giggs's dribbles always hit a Wednesday foot just when he was poised for take-off.

So it was left to Andrei Kanchelskis to provide the greatest threat and it was from his flank that danger came, most notably with three crosses that Roy Keane, United's best player, was fractions away from with his head. Gary Pallister also had a header cleared off the line by Walker in the 59th minute.

Wednesday chances had the rarity of diamonds, their best coming a minute from half- time when Waddle's exquisite pass located Hirst. The striker chested the ball down and turned impressively and if he had been match fit he would probably have scored. Instead, starting his first game for five months, his shot did not have the power to trouble Peter Schmeichel even though it took a deflection.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes. Substitutes not used: McClair, Dublin, Sealey (gk).

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Nilsson, Pearce, Walker, Coleman; Waddle (Bart-Williams, 71), Hyde, Palmer, Sinton; Hirst, Bright. Substitutes not used: Watson, Woods.

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

(Photograph omitted)