Football: Ince's overhead flourish takes United to the top: Hughes injury fails to stop Ferguson's finest making regal return to top of Premier League

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Queen's Park Rangers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Manchester United . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

MANCHESTER UNITED made light of the loss of Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes, and surged back to the top of the Premier League in a super-charged scrap which saw both managers summoned to the referee's room at half-time.

Told to cool it, they neglected to pass the message on to their players, who were at it hammer and tongs from first to last.

It was a red-blooded battle in every sense, leaving Hughes with nine stitches in a calf laid open by a horrible tackle for which Alan McDonald was booked. It also left United unbeaten in their last 10 matches and restored to pole position in the title race, courtesy of goals from the top drawer by Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis.

Hughes, painfully wounded, will miss Saturday's FA Cup tie at home to Brighton, but Cantona should be fit by then. No matter. It is going to take more than a casualty or two to upset United in their present rampaging form. With 23 points from the last 27, the championship favourites are hot, and getting hotter all the time.

Alex Ferguson was unhappy about some of QPR's physical excesses, the worst of which saw McDonald and Simon Barker cautioned, but a glance at the table this morning should bring a smile to that most lugubrious of managerial miens.

The title? 'There are a lot of teams involved,' the United manager said. 'Norwich were top, then us, then Aston Villa, now it's us again. Who the hell knows what's going to happen next?'

It was a question which might have been asked of the match. Cut and thrust, nip and tuck. To blink was to risk missing a shot or clattering challenge.

The physical commitment was not entirely unexpected, a measure of revenge the order of the day. Twelve months ago, Rangers knocked United off the top of the League, and raised the first serious doubts about their championship potential, by winning 4-1 at Old Trafford.

At full strength, they might well have caused further embarrassment, but the absence of Ray Wilkins and Gary Penrice, both with broken legs, was compounded by a training accident which removed Les Ferdinand from the focal point of their attack with a strained groin.

The loss of Ferdinand's aerial power was immediately apparent, Dennis Bailey making disappointing contact with David Bardsley's cross, and heading weakly to Peter Schmeichel from 12 yards. Les the Leap would have done better.

Even though QPR were not at their strongest, nor at their best, Gerry Francis has made them more competetive than the Rangers of old and they might easily have had more than the consolation furnished by Bradley Allen in the 43rd minute.

'They had a go for me,' Francis said of his make-do-and-mend team. Fair comment.

United's pursuit of the victory they needed to dislodge Villa from the top might have been wrecked by the loss of Hughes, their leading scorer, who was left writhing in distress by McDonald's ruthless challenge from behind.

Instead, Ince and Giggs came up with goals to savour to give them an initiative they were never to lose.

QPR might have fallen behind after 25 minutes, when Darren Peacock's sliced clearance rattled against the bar. Their reprieve was brief. Within a minute Lee Sharpe's deflected cross flew at Ince at the most unpromising of angles, but the England midfielder, who had his back to goal, took to the air with a spectacular overhead kick which beat Tony Roberts at his right-hand post.

Four minutes later Giggs advanced on Dennis Irwin's through pass, running clear before steadying himself on the edge of the penalty area and lifting the ball coolly over the advancing goalkeeper. At 2-0, QPR looked to be out for the count.

Allen's goal, driven in at the second attempt, revived them just before half-time, but United slammed the door shut again after 48 minutes when Kanchelskis, in for Cantona, made the most of his elevation by receiving from Sharpe and beating Roberts with a crisp finish from 12 yards.

Rangers were rattled, their irritation evident when Barker was booked for a late tackle on Paul Parker and, with tempers frayed, the managers belatedly urged restraint.

It was a case of do as I say, not as I do, a confrontation between Parker and Andy Sinton having provoked an exchange of unpleasantries between the two benches which saw Francis and Ferguson lectured as to their responsibilities by an overworked referee.

Francis was unconcerned. 'It's a man's game,' he said. 'Alex was asking me about my aftershave.' Reaching for the cut-throat, more like.

Queen's Park Rangers: Roberts; Bardsley, Wilson, Barker, Peacock (Thompson, 70), McDonald, Impey, Holloway, Allen, Bailey, Sinton. Substitutes not used: Brevett, Stejskal (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Kanchelskis, Ince, McClair, Hughes (Phelan, 14), Giggs. Substitutes not used: Lawton, Sealey (gk).

Referee: J Martin (Alton).

Company of Wolves, page 28

(Photograph omitted)

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