Football: Hughes strikes to keep Norwich in check

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Manchester United. .1

Norwich City. . . . 0

THE DARK horses have been reined in. Norwich City, the club no one thought would be heading the Premier League, never mind creating a huge lead, succumbed to their fourth defeat of the season yesterday to refresh the chasers and reinforce doubts about their ability to stay the course. You could almost hear the sighs of relief from the rest of the division.

A second-half goal from Mark Hughes halted the East Anglian charge and reduced their advantage at the top to five points.

United, meanwhile, collected their fourth successive victory, and a championship challenge that threatened to be stifled by a lack of goals has received its oxygen. Past-masters of blowing significant leads themselves, they are probably quite happy with their place off the pace.

Norwich now hold a position in which United have caved in before. Pressure will dog their every game and their manager was not entirely happy with how they reacted yesterday.

'The goal summed up the match for us,' Mike Walker said. 'Scruffy and unlucky. We didn't perform. It was probably our worst match of the season.' The bookmakers have reduced the odds on Norwich winning their first title from 20-1 to 5-1 in the past fortnight. Stand by for prices to lengthen.

In keeping with an unpredictable season, the flight of the unexpected runaways was halted by a man who looked incapable of scoring only a month ago. The arrival of Eric Cantona from Leeds has concentrated Hughes's mind wonderfully, however, and in the past four games he has got scored goals.

The latest was taken with typical gusto in the 59th minute, the Welsh striker volleying in from six yards after a mistake from Daryl Sutch had left him with only Bryan Gunn to beat. Lee Sharpe crossed, the Norwich midfielder failed to control properly and Hughes pounced

That was unfortunate for the visitors, who played much elegant football, but United could have scored several more. 'I missed two myself,' Hughes conceded. 'We've been saying all season that if we all clicked we'd beat someone 4- or 5-0. But we're still waiting.' No one is more aware of that than United's supporters.

The most meaningful action of the first half was compressed into the final three minutes. Much has been made of Mark Robins's return to his old club. Since his pounds 800,000 transfer from Old Trafford in August he has scored 12 goals in 19 matches, and he almost got his 13th in the 42nd minute. Steve Bruce and Darren Beckford rose for a long ball and the rebound fell to an unguarded Robins on the edge of the area.

It was with the poise of a natural striker that Robins kept his head and shot low towards the far post. His strike evaded Peter Schmeichel's arms but the Danish goalkeeper's leg catapulted the ball over the bar. 'He had one chance and could have made it 1-0 at half-time,' Ferguson agreed. 'A club like this lets a lot of players leave and inevitably one or two will come back and embarrass us. It's inevitable but not something to worry about.'

Watching one of their former team-mates nearly score galvanised United, and they could have had two goals before the interval. Hughes rounded Gunn but found the angle he had created so acute that he failed to make proper contact with the ball. Cantona shot against the Norwich goalkeeper's body when put clear by Ryan Giggs a minute later.

The Frenchman, starting a match for the first time since his pounds 1.2m transfer from Elland Road, made amends with some delightful touches in the second half.

There is a theory doing the rounds that Cantona and Hughes are too similar in style to gel properly, but they combined well on numerous occasions yesterday. It was in concert with Giggs, however, that he had the 'Ooh-ahs' coming from the crowd.

One delightful flick from Giggs gave Cantona the freedom of the Norwich left flank and he returned the compliment in near- identical fashion later on. On each occasion a goal would have resulted but for the work of Ian Culverhouse.

'He showed today that he is a Manchester United player,' Ferguson said. 'Some of his touches were superb, very special. But what he added most of all was his vision. He launched attacks from positions where there should have been nothing.

'I enjoyed the way we played today. Sometimes with a 1-0 win you just get there but we thoroughly deserved our win today. We could have scored more goals but . . .'

Stop me if you have heard that before.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs. Subs not used: A Kanchelskis, C Blackmore, F Digby (gk). Manager: A Ferguson.

Norwich City: B Gunn; I Culverhouse, M Bowen, I Butterworth, J Polston, D Sutch, I Crook (G Megson, 15 min), D Beckford (C Sutton, 75 min), M Robins, R Fox, D Phillips. Sub not used: A Marshall (gk). Manager: M Walker.

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).

Goal: Hughes (1-0, 59 min).