Football: Profligate United take on that familiar look

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The Independent Online
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THE SIGNS for Manchester United are becoming worrying. This time last year they began squandering league points and finished second to Leeds. Yesterday's result means they have taken only two points out of their last nine. The sense of deja vu grows stronger.

They created the opportunities at Maine Road but, as in the matches against Oldham Athletic and Aston Villa, they failed to convert them. 'You can talk about penalties,' their manager, Alex Ferguson, said when asked about a dubious challenge by Keith Curle on Mark Hughes, 'but we shouldn't need them. We're good enough to win games without them.'

Yesterday United let slip at least four opportunites that you would not expect Dean Saunders or, dare one say it, Mark Robins to miss. Eric Cantona could have had a hat-trick and Ryan Giggs might have had two. City had the bulk of the possession and finished the stronger but the visitors were like vipers striking on the limited possession they wrested. Except they seemed to be short on venom.

As a consequence the result was a rare thing, satisfying to both blue and red halves of the city. Ferguson was an exception. 'A draw is a convenient result in a derby,' he said. 'I thought my players were a little too satisfied at 1-1, they should have been pressing for a win. At this stage anyone in our position considers anything but a victory as points lost.

'March was always going to be a big month for us. If we are still in the ball game at the end of it we'll have a chance.'

The miss that will have irritated Ferguson most came after 49 minutes. If one player seems unaffected by the hullabaloo which surrounds United's championship near misses it is Cantona. Yet his manager would probably have preferred a nerve-induced wallop of the ball after Hughes and Giggs had contrived to put the Frenchman clear. Instead he calmly placed the ball towards the corner which gave Tony Coton time to save to his right.

Cantona, who also had a first- half header excellently saved by the City goalkeeper, buried his face in his hands but his moment to make amends came 19 minutes later. Hughes was given far too much time to turn on the halfway line by Michel Vonk and that mistake was compounded when the rest of the City defence hesitated to appeal for offside when the United striker passed to Lee Sharpe on the right.

Cantona, so dangerous precisely because he can always find space, was free in the middle and the full-back Terry Phelan had to leave Giggs to race across to cover. Too late. Sharpe's cross was perfect and Cantona's header was expertly placed into the far corner.

The goal, Cantona's seventh in 14 full appearances, could not have been better timed as City were making a strong case towards winning their first derby since the 5-1 mauling at Maine Road in September 1989. When City lost to United at Old Trafford in December there was criticism of their one-dimensional play. This time they abandoned the immediate long ball to Niall Quinn and took a more terrestrial route. Which made their 57th minute goal an oddity.

Quinn had got little change out of Gary Pallister when the ball had been in the air and Rick Holden, a normal source of crosses, had been subdued by the speed and positioning of Paul Parker. Two exceptions combined, however, Holden chipping the ball up from the left and Quinn rising to head past Peter Schmeichel.

United's equaliser prompted a further spell of City dominance that would have yielded a greater reward had Mike Sheron's 71st- minute shot hit the post and gone in instead of bouncing away for a goal-kick. Even so they created more than one scramble in the United penalty area and three corners in the last five minutes.

'If we had played with the same passion all season as we showed today we'd have been right up there,' Quinn said. And would United win the title? 'As a blue I should say no, but they won't be far away.' They will need to acquire the habit of winning first.

Manchester City: A Coton; A Hill, T Phelan, P Reid, K Curle, M Vonk, D White, M Sheron, N Quinn, G Flitcroft, R Holden. Subs not used: M Quigley, M Margetson (gk), K Ingebrigtsen. Player-manager: P Reid.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs. Subs not used: B Robson, L Sealey (gk), A Kanchelskis. Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

Goals: Quinn (1-0, 57 min); Cantona (1-1, 68 min).

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