Football: Ince sinks Liverpool to keep United on course: Champions stretch their lead in the Premiership to six points as they prepare for the showdown with Blackburn on Saturday

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Manchester United. . . . .1

Liverpool. . . . . . . . .0

The cracks that had been appearing in Manchester United's attempt to retain their Premiership title were all but filled with a win over the team they arguably enjoy beating more than any other. Paul Ince's first-half goal ensured they travel to Blackburn on Saturday with a six-point lead.

It is not often that Wimbledon are the toast of anywhere but there was no denying that Old Trafford had warm feelings towards the 'Crazy Gang' last night. Their defeat of Blackburn on Tuesday night had reduced much of the tension in Manchester brewing after United's Coca-Cola Cup final upset on Sunday.

Manchester United versus Liverpool would be fiercely contested if they met in an origami championship but at least there was breathing space between the home side and second-placed Blackburn as they set about their long-term adversaries from Merseyside. Only their manager, Alex Ferguson, seemed unimpressed by Blackburn's setback. 'It's what we do that matters,' he said, 'not what they do.'

What Ferguson did last night was to rest Ryan Giggs, who was substituted against Aston Villa at Wembley. Lee Sharpe got the Welshman's place, while Liverpool also left their most talented youngster, Robbie Fowler, on the bench. This, nominally at least, pushed John Barnes into a striker's role alongside Ian Rush, although the former England winger appeared to have a roving commission.

The attention initially was fixed, however, on Eric Cantona who was playing in his last match before a five-game suspension. In the opening minutes he tried a back-heel that almost freed Sharpe and then headed a near-perfect ball for Andrei Kanchelskis. For a split second it appeared the Ukranian winger would be clear through until the powerful leg of Neil Ruddock suppressed the chance.

This did not sound the bugle on the expected home charge. Instead Liverpool's more measured pace set the dominant tone in the first 30 minutes. Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp seemed to have discovered an avenue of opportunity between Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin and they frequently explored it In the 17th minute Redknapp crossed from the right into Rush's path, and only Steve Bruce's lunge saved United. From the resulting corner Peter Schmeichel was deceived by McManaman's cross, the ball came eventually to Ruddock who pulled his shot wide from eight yards. Two minutes later Redknapp fired into the side netting from a narrow angle.

The United riposte was a rather lame attempt at a chip by Cantona after 22 minutes and a thunderous drive from Mark Hughes which whistled a foot over the bar.

In the 37th minute the champions struck. Rob Jones tried to find his goalkeeper with a scrambled back-pass which forced David James into conceding a corner. The first kick was cleared but Sharpe's second arced to the near post and Paul Ince headed in from three yards.

The score at half-time represented a slight injustice to Liverpool who had been the better side in the first 45 minutes. Immediately after the interval, their passing was even more precise. Redknapp, who was having one of his best matches for Liverpool, provided a constant threat with his runs from deep positions. After 57 minutes he had Schmeichel scurrying along his goal-line to make a save low to his left.

United, meanwhile, seemed happy to bide their time, drawing the visitors forward while hoping to release their fleet-footed wingers. Twice Hughes nearly sprang the trap, but Kanchelskis and Sharpe were denied, first by Ruddock and then by James.

In the 68th minute Liverpool claimed a penalty when Kanchelskis appeared to wrestle Michael Thomas to the ground. Initially the referee signalled a foul and had his mind changed only after consulting his linesman. The relief in the United ranks was summed up by Bruce's gesture telling Kanchelskis to stay up field.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Sharpe (Giggs, 66); Hughes, Cantona (Robson, 72). Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Jones, Nichol, Ruddock, Dicks; McManaman, Redknapp, Whelan, Thomas; Barnes, Rush. Substitutes not used: Clough, Fowler, Grobbelaar (gk).

Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).

----------------------------------------------------------------- FA PREMIERSHIP TOP THREE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Man Utd 34 22 10 2 69 32 76 Blackburn 34 21 7 6 52 29 70 Newcastle 34 19 6 9 68 33 63 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Photograph, page 47