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STATUS QUO on the loudspeakers, blasting out the 12-bar torture that passes for an FA Cup final single, and the status quo on the pitch, although for more than an hour at Old Trafford last night Manchester United played as if there was dust on the needle.
Southampton, pursuing the implausible win which would have all but guaranteed Premiership survival, were calling the tune when Andrei Kanchelskis scored with United's first chance of the second half. Mark Hughes doubled the margin in injury time, which means that Alan Ball's side go into their final game still facing the music near the foot of the table.
While victory would have flattered the Saints - Eric Cantona alone might have scored four times - there was much in the way they tackled the champions to give them heart for Saturday's visit to West Ham. Indeed, Gary Walsh had plenty of scope to press his claim for a place in the United goal against Chelsea at Wembley should Peter Schmeichel fail to recover from injury.
United were some way below their best, not surprisingly with the title secure again. They were also without Steve Bruce, their captain, for the first time this season, although any suggestion of soft-pedalling was quickly dispelled.
The pattern was established inside the first 40 seconds, the time it took for Ryan Giggs to tear past Jeff Kenna and set up Roy Keane. His shot was blocked but fell nicely for Cantona, who inexplicably put the ball wide from five yards.
Southampton's wide midfielders tucked in to try and cut off the supply of crosses. The ploy did not generally succeed, and they were thankful to see Hughes and Keane spurn free headers.
When called upon midway through the first half, Walsh, who Alex Ferguson claimed he could not give away earlier this season, dived athletically to parry Iain Dowie's goal-bound header. Walsh was relieved, though, to see Matthew Le Tissier's snap-shot flash wide moments later.
Having survived beyond half- time, Southampton at last came out to play. Jim Magilton was inches too high with a 30-yard drive, while Ken Monkou's aerial strength caused problems at corners. But just when it seemed United might take an unexpected fall, they broke out and scored.
Denis Irwin's pass from the right wing found Kanchelskis unmarked inside the box in the 61st minute. Dave Beasant seemed to have blocked the ensuing shot, only for the ball to squeeze inside his near post.
Southampton were desperately close to an equaliser when Le Tissier, with a trade-mark curling free-kick, forced a brilliant diving save from Walsh seven minutes from time. Hughes's 20th goal of an outstanding season - a brutal, rising drive from 20 yards - sealed United's success.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Walsh; Irwin, Pallister, Parker, Sharpe; Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes. Substitutes not used: McClair, Robson, Sealey (gk).
Southampton (4-4-2): Beasant; Monkou, Widdrington (Maskell, 75), Benali, Charlton; Kenna, Allen, Magilton, Maddison; Dowie, Le Tissier. Substitutes not used: Dodd, Andrews (gk).
Referee: T Holbrook (Walsall).Reuse content