Football: Hughes spares United's blushes

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Manchester United. .2

Hughes 47, McClair 68

QPR. . . . . . . . .0

Attendance: 43,214

MANCHESTER UNITED duly launched the defence of their Premiership title with a double flourish. But a double flourish of red cards demonstrated that not everything will be business as usual. The two second-half goals underlined the fact that, even well below their best, United are still the hardest side in the League to contain.

The referee, Dermot Gallagher, dismissed Clive Wilson, of Rangers, after only eight minutes and the United substitute, Paul Parker, 15 minutes from the end, both for upending opponents on their way to goal. Players could be, and were, sent off for similar tackles last season; more often, as both managers observed afterwards, they were deemed to have strayed into yellow-card territory. The speed with which Mr Gallagher found the colour he wanted in his top pocket yesterday suggested there will be fewer suspended sentences this time.

Ironically, United, who began by looking set to run riot through Andrei Kanchelskis on Wilson's wing, found it harder to play against Rangers' depleted line-up after Wilson had tripped the Russian. The absence of the suspended Eric Cantona robbed them of much of their craft and subtlety, a loss which a quiet display from Lee Sharpe, and Ryan Giggs' sporadic contribution alongside Mark Hughes did little to redress.

Rangers, prematurely dismissed as relegation candidates in some quarters, positively thrived on playing short-handed. Les Ferdinand, whose retention is surely crucial to their prospects, caused United repeated problems by dropping deep and losing his markers. Ahead of him, Kevin Gallen, an 18-year-old protege who has been breaking the goalscoring records in youth-team football, prospered on his senior debut, giving United a timely warning of his potential midway through the first half. Within a minute, Gallen had the ball in the net with the help of an easily detected handball and then nearly sent a header spinning from Peter Schmeichel's grasp and over the line.

As if to emphasise what United were missing, Cantona was on the pitch at half-time, receiving the supporters' player-of-the-year award, won in a predictable landslide.

Within three minutes of the re-start, there was another, more tangible reminder of what made United irresistible last season from the runner-up for the fans' affection, Hughes.

It began with another incursion by Kanchelskis down the right. His ball, squared across for the supporting David May, missed its mark, but there was Hughes, swivelling, shooting and celebrating a characteristic goal in one economical movement.

The best move of the match - a cross from Sharpe, a head down by Hughes and a chip by Brian McClair - was only denied by Tony Roberts' quick reaction, but Rangers were far from cowed.

They had an excellent chance to equalise when Schmeichel's uncertain handling saw him parry rather than hold Ferdinand's shot. Gallen, following up at an angle, missed an inviting opportunity.

A minute later, United had put the game beyond reasonable doubt, Paul Ince emphasising his energetic second-half display with a fierce shot that cannoned down off the crossbar for McClair's head to complete the task.

Some confident football that could easily have produced a third United goal was put into the shade by the second sending-off of the match.

Parker had only been on the field for four minutes when he was caught out by Ferdinand's deceptive pace and he brought him down on the edge of the penalty area - a more clear-cut decision for Mr Gallagher than the first one, but one which still left Alex Ferguson with ambivalent feelings about the new directives.

'I'm happy that there is a clean-up in the game,' he insisted after the match, adding that he would be interested to see whether the stricter rulings were interpreted as rigorously elsewhere yesterday. 'If there are inconsistencies, then it all goes haywire.'