Football: Seasonal harmony provided by Giggs

Coventry City 0 Manchester United 1
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The Independent Online
WATCHING THE Coventry players trudge off as Manchester United returned the applause of their fans, it was hard to resist the feeling that the Premiership is in danger of becoming football's equivalent of the film Groundhog Day, in which the characters act out the same events over and over.

Controversies come and go like so many England coaches, allowing BSkyB's trailer-makers to hype it up as a volatile, anything-could-happen division. Yet when the stardust has settled, some things are immutable. For instance, United and Arsenal enter the final week in February in precisely the positions they occupied 12 months back, with Alex Ferguson's team trying not to be distracted by an impending European Cup quarter-final against Internazionale, just as they were with Monaco last March.

Chelsea are lurking with intent a place higher than they were then and, with a few variations, the also-rans stand in a similar order. At the bottom, Nottingham Forest are where they finished in their last flirtation with the top flight, and are joined by most of the usual suspects, notably Everton and Southampton.

Charlton, patronisingly typecast in the Barnsley role of unworldly tourists from the Nationwide League, are demonstrating that, like the Yorkshire club, they will not go without a fight. Completing a familiar picture are Coventry, who, like the poor, are always with us.

This time last year, Highfield Road was enjoying one of its periodic respites from scrapping for survival. On Saturday, however, United's victory dumped Coventry back in the relegation zone, their natural habitat in the last third of the season. A single lapse of concentration, a Ryan Giggs goal and the familiar feeling of an undeserved defeat: the sense of deja Sky Blue was all-pervasive.

In the 32 years since they burst into the old First Division under Jimmy Hill, it has become a spring ritual for Coventry managers to pledge defiance in the face of the drop. Gordon Strachan started early, standing where the likes of Noel Cantwell, John Sillett and Bobby Gould did (and were as good as their word), promising neither he nor his players would "crumble" in a test set by the "football gods".

If such language reads rather like Glenn Hoddle waxing spiritual, it is misleading. Strachan is in the Kevin Keegan mould and is no chief obfuscating officer. Coventry's display provided evidence of a comparable ability to inspire, as well as an organisational and tactical prowess not always associated with England's latest incumbent.

Seldom can Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole have been so peripheral, for which Paul Williams, Burton-on-Trent's answer to Beckenbauer on the day, can take particular credit. Rarely does Roy Keane make so little impact. Sadly for Coventry, the one man they could not mark out of the match, Peter Schmeichel, was at his most agile and authoritative.

United's maligned goalkeeper saved brilliantly from George Boateng's drive during Coventry's best spell, when they fashioned three good chances in five minutes before half-time. He also turned goal-maker late in the game, reprising his impression of Old Trafford's summer breed by swiftly bowling the ball out after catching Gary McAllister's cross.

In an awesome demonstration of the leaders' capacity for counter-attack, Yorke, Giggs and David Beckham all helped it on before the latter's cross skimmed off Richard Shaw's head for the Welshman to guide it goalwards. That it was turned in by Shaw, who, as a Palace player was involved in the incident which led to Eric Cantona's sending-off and "kung-fu" craziness, must have made it all the sweeter for Alex Ferguson.

While relishing the psychological impact which the timing and margin of their success would have had in the Arsenal and Chelsea dressing-rooms, the United manager admitted they had "ground out" the points. "I'm pleased to be able to say that," he added. "We're fed up of entertaining you all."

Giving a full game to Giggs after his recent injury was perhaps a gamble on such a heavy pitch (if the Premiership really does have pretensions to be the best league in the world, how come so many of the playing surfaces resemble Wembley after the Horse of the Year Show?). But in a clear indication of United's priorities, Ferguson said it was important for Giggs to have games before the home leg of the European tie a week on Wednesday.

The confrontation with Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio also informed his decision to withdraw Jaap Stam at half-time. The Dutch colossus had a tight hamstring, Ferguson explained, so he was "not taking any chances with the Inter game coming up". Scrutiny of United's international-studded list of substitutes, which did not even include Nicky Butt or Wes Brown, revealed why he is confident they can pursue the title with one eye on the grail that has eluded them since 1968.

Coincidentally, it was the May of United's triumph over Benfica when the Sky Blues started the tradition of escapology which led one director to suggest changing their name to Coventry Houdini. With the next three home fixtures pitting them against Charlton, Blackburn and Southampton, the chance to wriggle free is there for the taking.

But, knowing their penchant for the Groundhog Day scenario, they will run out at Leeds on the final afternoon with their fate still in the balance. Their quality, spirit and work-rate offer hope, though as John Cleese's character sighed in Clockwise, another film about the tricks played by time: "I don't mind the despair. It's the hope I can't stand." The clock is ticking once more for Coventry.

Goal: Giggs (78) 0-1.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Shaw, Williams, Burrows (Soltvedt, 85); Boateng, Telfer, McAllister, Froggatt; Whelan (Aloisi, 64), Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Konjic, Quinn, Ogrizovic (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam (Berg, h-t), Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Yorke (P Neville, 85), Cole (Solskjaer, 73). Substitutes not used: Blomqvist, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury). Bookings: Coventry: Burrows, Boateng. Manchester United: Scholes, Stam, Cole.

Man of the match: Williams.

Attendance: 22,596.