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CAUGHT between the demands of last week's international matches and next Wednesday's visit of Galatasaray in the second round of the European Cup, Manchester United took time to find their stride yesterday. In the end, though, and in front of Old Trafford's biggest crowd of the season, second-half goals from Roy Keane and Lee Sharpe gave them their ninth Premiership win, extending their lead over Norwich City and Arsenal to seven points.
After Darren Caskey had pulled one back for a willing and spirited Tottenham,it could have been a landslide. As Spurs threw everything into attack, the home forwards simply waited for the breaks, queuing up to miss chances with the abandon of millionaires tossing banknotes on a bonfire.
Can anyone stop Manchester United? 'At themoment,' said Osvaldo Ardiles, contemplating an honourable defeat, 'I would have to say the answer is no.' Alex Ferguson's mellow post-match mood suggested that he, too, knew that his players are good enough just now to absorb the pressure of involvement on several fronts and to win difficult matches while holding something in reserve.
Of the 13 men who were on international duty last week, Ferguson lost only Paul Ince for yesterday's match, the England midfield man's ankle injury, picked up in Rotterdam, allowing Bryan Robson to return to the colours. It was significant that United's only real moment of weakness came just after they had gone 2-0 up, in the 70th minute, when Ferguson replaced Robson with Brian McClair and saw Spurs pull a goal back within seconds.
'Maybe they get a little bit sloppy when they're in a winning situation,' Ardiles mused. But the withering assault which United mounted in the last quarter of an hour indicated that the champions are not inclined to take their superiority for granted.
Ardiles lost Teddy Sheringham in the first half, his knee twisted during a tackle by Robson. Paul Moran came on to partner Nick Barmby, who was making his first appearance of the season. This left Spurs short of weight and power, in marked contrast to the home team, whose strong spine of Gary Pallister, Robson, Keane and Hughes allowed Cantona and Ryan Giggs the freedom to indulge their fantasies.
Real chances were rare in the first half, but Giggs was nevertheless in stupendous form on the left wing, his raking runs destroying the attempts of David Kerslake to hold him at bay. In one fluid swoop he went past both Kerslake and Caskey, whipping over a centre that Mabbutt did well to put behind.
Schmeichel's failure to judge his running leap for Steve Sedgley's cross almost allowed Moran to give Spurs the lead in the opening minutes of the second half, but with Giggs now raiding down the right the home side's momentum was gathering force. When Giggs picked up Cantona's wicked back-heel, slid the ball through for Hughes and watched as Lee Sharpe smashed the rebound over the bar, it was beginning to look irresistible.
After 65 minutes, Sharpe's left-wing cross was half-cleared to Keane, whose half-volley from 20 yards represented the dogged Irishman's fifth goal of the season. Four minutes later Sharpe robbed David Howell on the edge of the area and slid the ball past Eric Thorstvedt with a panache that had seemed far beyond him in Rotterdam.
With McClair on for Robson, Justin Edinburgh took advantage of United's euphoria to pull a neat ball back into the path of Caskey, whose careful finish brought the margin back to a single goal. This, though, merely aroused United into a crescendo of dazzling attacking play which tore Tottenham's close-passing game apart.
'Our finishing could have been a bit better,' Ferguson observed, announcing that Robson had played despite a week- long cold and admitting that he had perhaps been 'a bit hasty' in making an unforced substitution immediately after the second goal. Ince, he added, would almost certainly be fit to face the Turkish champions on Wednesday. 'That'll be a big night,' he said. Just now, they all are.
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