Football: Ince's startling strike keeps United soaring

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. .2

Nottingham Forest. .0

THE pre-match tittle-tattle had been of Gascoigne and his latest goon show, but fatuous flatulence was quickly forgotten when his minder from England's midfield scored from all of 30 yards to keep Manchester United flying high at the top of the Premier League and Nottingham Forest bumping along the bottom.

Paul Ince's third goal of an increasingly impressive season was enough to preserve the status quo, despite the successes elsewhere which keep Aston Villa and Norwich City pounding away in second and third place respectively.

Mark Hughes' fulminating second, midway through the second half, served only to embellish what was United's sixth successive win.

It could, and should have been more, only profligate finishing sparing Forest a real hiding. Not that Old Trafford's biggest audience of the season (36,085) seemed to mind. The red legions sense that after 26 years United's time may be at hand again. The nervy mistakes are fewer now, the pressure more insistent, the progress assured rather than frantic.

To Alex Ferguson's profound satisfaction the attitude is spot on. It has to be.

Top versus bottom it may have been, but Forest's recent revival suggests they may be capable of a midtable finish. Top, middle or bottom, United have learned to take nothing for granted. Losing 2-1 at home to Forest, then 1-0 at relegation-bound West Ham wrecked their challenge for the championship nine months ago, and taught them the harshest of lessons. If they were complacent then, they are fired up now.

Neil Webb's transfer back to his spiritual home has shaken Forest out of what seemed to be a terminal torpor, but Ferguson has no reason to regret selling the playmaker back whence he came. United are unbeaten since Webb's departure, and not even his most ardent admirer could quibble with a midfield of Ince and McClair, flanked by Sharpe and Giggs.

They were always too strong for opponents who had the much coveted Roy Keane substituted when frustration got the better of him, a quarter of an hour from the end.

The loss of Stuart Pearce their inspirational captain, with a groin strain did nothing for Forest's confidence. On no fewer than five occasions in the first 15 minutes United had Mark Crossley hopping like a scalded cat, but without summoning the accuracy to cause him real embarrassment.

Against stronger opposition they might have rued their extravagance but when Forest hit back on the break, as is their custom, Gary Bannister was too close to Peter Schmeichel with head and boot.

United might easily have gone ahead after 35 minutes when Gary Pallister's header from a Ryan Giggs corner had Crossley throwing up a hand, instinctively to turn the ball against his crossbar.

United should have scored often enough in the first half to render the second academic, but relief was at hand. Ince set his sights with a shot from eight yards on the resumption, then let fly from more adventurous range after 47 minutes and was rewarded for his enterprise when his 30 yarder, which was redirected by Carl Tiler, left Crossley helpless.

Hughes threatened to double the margin with a typical pile-driver before removing all doubt after 68 minutes, when Eric Cantona's pass inside enabled him to swivel on the edge of the penalty area before scoring via the crossbar with the sort of shot which is the Welsh bull's trademark.

'Absolute dynamite,' was Ferguson's unequivocal summary. Forest, like Gascoigne, had been blown away.

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

Nottingham Forest: Crossley; Laws, Williams, Chettle, Tiler, Keane (Crosby, 75), Bannister, Gemmill, Clough, Webb, Woan (Orlygsson, 75). Substitute not used: Marriott (gk).

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).

Allen saves QPR, page 37