Football / Race for the Championship: United stay clear of rampant Rovers: Ince relieves fraying Old Trafford nerves - Dalglish's men keep up the pressure as Oldham and Everton drop closer to relegation

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THE roar might have been heard up at Ewood Park, but it was born of relief more than triumph. Nothing is ever easy these days for United, who are hanging on to their title by fingernails gnawed down to the bone.

Nothing less than three points would suffice on a day when Blackburn Rovers cranked up the pressure by winning 3-0 at Everton, and the champions got them. Just.

They are going to need a good few more. Blackburn have built up such a head of steam that Alex Ferguson believes United may need to win each of their last six games to hold off the Rovers' relentless charge.

Cut and thrust, nip and tuck, it was enthralling, edge-of-the- seat entertainment for another packed audience at the theatre of dreams.

Oldham's need is every bit as urgent as their metropolitan neighbours', defeat leaving them perched precariously in 19th place, two points above the relegation places. Their manager, Joe Royle, felt his team had been hard done by, suggesting two United players were offside when Paul Ince scored the decisive goal.

He may well have been right, but the result was the right one. United were the better side - albeit only by a margin reflected by the score.

In the first half of the season, they would have seen off relegation material without breaking sweat. Now, with nerves frayed to breaking point, perspiration has replaced inspiration, and it is a battle to beat anybody.

Unhappy with the performance behind Saturday's defeat at Blackburn, Ferguson dropped Paul Parker and switched Denis Irwin to right-back, with Lee Sharpe withdrawn to fill the vacancy on the left side of the back four.

It was a bold change, and one which brought significant dividends, with Sharpe and Ryan Giggs combining on the left, to the confusion, and consternation, of Chris Makin, Oldham's inexperienced right-back.

Giggs had been anonymous at the weekend as Eric Cantona's striking stand-in. Here, restored to his usual station, on the flank, he soon replenished his stock with manager and supporters alike, holding off Makin to open the scoring after 18 minutes, with a looping header.

Oldham were timidly preoccupied with defence throughout the first half, yet might have equalised when Gary Pallister's slip let in Graeme Sharp, who passed up the opportunity of a free run on goal with a maladroit first touch.

Ince, Pallister and Sharpe all threatened to extend the lead, and United seemed set fair for a routine win, by a restorative margin. Wrong. No sooner had the man from Irish radio derided Sean McCarthy - 'Touch like an elephant, Niall Quinn's wife would do better' - than the latest recruit to Jack's Jolly Green Army had him eating his words with a gem of a goal.

Supplied by Makin, the pounds 550,000 signing from Bradford City did his World Cup prospects no harm at all by beating Peter Schmeichel with his left foot, from the edge of the penalty area.

'Where's your title gone?' chorused the quorum from Boundary Park. They started singing too soon. Ferguson sent on Dion Dublin in place of Brian McClair, and within three minutes of his introduction the forgotten striker had lifted team and crowd alike. Giggs crossed from the left, Kanchelskis had a shot blocked, and a man called Dublin kept United's hopes alive, alive oh, by driving the ball in from six yards.

Within a minute it was 3-1, a Mark Hughes through-ball leaving Giggs and Kanchelskis looking suspiciously offside before Ince slid in to bury Giggs's centre from the right.

'You're going down with the City,' the Stretford End chortled. Briefly. Sharp found the roof of Schmeichel's net from 10 yards, and with 20 minutes left breath was for holding rather than taunting the opposition.

When it was all over, Ferguson was all smiles - Saturday's setback forgotten. The three points had been 'vital', he said. United's aim had to be to win each of their last six matches, because there was every likelihood that Blackburn would.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Sharpe; Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Giggs; Hughes, McClair (Dublin, 63). Substitutes not used: Robson, Sealey (gk).

Oldham Athletic: (4-4-2): Hallworth; Makin, Jobson, Redmond, Pointon; Milligan, Fleming, Brennan, Holden; McCarthy, Sharp. Substitutes not used: Beckford, Palmer, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Dorset).

----------------------------------------------------------------- PREMIERSHIP TOP THREE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Man Utd 36 23 10 3 72 36 79 Blackburn 36 23 7 6 57 29 76 Newcastle 36 19 8 9 69 34 65 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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