Football: McClair's finishing touch

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Stoke City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0

(Manchester United win 3-2 on aggregate)

YET another variation of Alex Ferguson's huge cast squeezed Manchester United a mite easily into the third round of the Coca-Cola Cup at Old Trafford last night. Brain McClair, one of the four understudies summoned for this performance, struck the winner two minutes from the end and the home gallery sighed in relief.

Stoke City, overawed by neither the opposition nor the stage, forced the Premiership leaders to the brink of extra time with unflinching endeavour and no little skill. The more they resisted and harrassed, the more rapidly the anxiety coursed through United's ranks. Even a goal 19 seconds into the second half, structured from the kick-off and completed by Lee Sharpe's far-post volley, failed to buckle Stoke or revive the familiar conviction in United's game.

Andrei Kanchelskis and McClair, replacing Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona, beavered with intent yet scant reward. Lee Martin, making a rare appearance at full-back, was patently ill at ease and gave away the ball too frequently. Of the four brought in, only Bryan Robson, restored to midfield and the captaincy, appeared comfortable and driven by the challenge.

Robson released Sharpe midway through the first half to deliver a centre which invited Mark Hughes to wind up for one of his specials. The Welshman duly produced the volley but Stoke's goalkeeper, Carl Muggleton, was well positioned and tipped the ball over.

The 36-year-old Robson was twice involved in the sweeping move which engineered the opening goal at the start of the second half. Hughes, Kanchelskis and McClair also participated and Sharpe applied the destructive blow. Robson won possession on the edge of the area, which had Mike Atherton, England's cricket captain, wincing in the directors' box. There were groans of another kind as Kanchelskis spurned the opportunity.

Hughes went close, so too Keane, and yet Stoke might have plundered a memorable victory. Mark Stein stretched Peter Schmeichel to a crucial save and the substitute Martin Carruthers was only just off target with a shot on the turn, seven minutes from the end.

Just before the end, a tiring Thorvaldur Orlygsson inadvertently helped on the ball to McClair who dispatched the decider.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Martin (Giggs, 86); Kanchelskis, Keane, Robson, Sharpe; Hughes, McClair. Substitutes not used: Ferguson, Sealey (gk).

Stoke City (4-4-2): Muggleton; Clarkson, Cranson, Overson, Cowans; Orlygsson, Foley, Gynn, Cleghorn; Stein, Sturridge (Carruthers, 69). Substitutes not used: Kevan, Prudhoe (gk).

Referee: K Cooper (Swindon).

United profits up, page 32