FOOTBALL: Hughes rekindles United's challenge

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The Independent Online
BY GUY HODGSON

Manchester United 3

Arsenal 0

Manchester United's pursuit of Blackburn Rovers may prove to be fruitless but they are running on regardless. This win, gained in their workman's clothes rather than their finery, moves them to within three points of their Championship rivals and keeps the fires of hope burning.

Goals from Mark Hughes, Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis proved sufficient to dispose of mediocre Arsenal who, for all the excitement of their European Cup-Winners' Cup defence, are being dragged into the drudgery of a survival battle. They have now won just two of their last nine League games and are only four points above the relegation places.

Hunger had been put on the agenda last night by Alex Ferguson, who wrote in his programme notes: "I am forced to examine whether we are a fraction short in wanting more success. . . I worry about whether we have lost our cutting edge."

To an extent his team will have allayed his fears but Arsenal played like corpulent squires who have long forgotten when they last felt pangs in their stomachs. This was a dire performance from the Londoners who, Ian Wright apart, showed only supine resistance once they went behind.

Which was a surprise because the opening spell was Arsenal's best of the match - not that this is saying much. Only once did they show a real spark when Wright showed splendid audacity in the 16th minute with an attempted chip from the centre circle. The ball eluded Peter Schmeichel but bounced just wide.

Resistance ended with two United goals in four minutes. The first, in the 27th minute, stemmed from a mistake by Vince Bartram, who dropped Ryan Giggs' cross. Sharpe had his shot charged down but the ball rebounded to Hughes, who thumped it through a thicket of defenders into the net.

The next was more elegantly crafted, Andy Cole passing to Kanchelskis on the right who, in turn, found Hughes on the edge of the area. The Welsh striker pivoted, half made to shoot and then teed up Sharpe who beat Bartram with a low right-foot drive into the far corner.

With that, the shape of the match was set in stone. United attacked without real conviction and Arsenal defended with an equal sense of doubt. Cole summed up the evening, frequently foxing his opponents with his pace but exhibiting dwindling confidence by the minute. A miss from five yards as he slid in late in the second half probably gave him nightmares last night.

Instead it was left to Kanchelskis to complete the scoring, shooting in from a narrow angle for his 15th goal of the season after Bartram had partly made amends for his earlier error with a diving save to deny Giggs.

"We went about the job in the right way tonight," Gary Pallister, United's centre-back, said. "We have made all the mistakes we can afford now, we've got to win. We spoke in the dressing room beforehand about whether we wanted to win the Championship enough now, and the lads proved they do."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Keane, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Ince, Sharpe, Giggs; Hughes, Cole. Substitutes not used: McClair, Butt, Pilkington (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Bartram; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour (Helder, 57), Keown, Morrow, Merson; Wright, Kiwomya. Substitutes not used: McGoldrick, Harper (gk).

Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).

More reports, results, page 39

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