Football: United close in on title

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

Chelsea. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

THE DOUBT about Manchester United has always been their head for heights. Now they can look down on Aston Villa from a four- point lead. For Villa there is nothing for it but to haul themselves immediately back into contention this afternoon against Manchester City or all but concede the first Premier League title.

The convincing outcome as much as the manner of their victory at Old Trafford yesterday confirmed that the hang-ups that so affected United last season seem to have been banished. Admittedly, Chelsea were badly set back by an own goal, suffered the perils of having a goalkeeper rapidly losing confidence and eventually had no appetite for the game, but United's team understanding and, particularly, their drive in midfield were totally convincing and suggested that this time there will be no end-of-season lack of self-belief.

Whereas in other matches they had struggled to impose superiority against inferior sides, here they led after 23 minutes and gradually increased their hold on a match that 12 months before they might have found much more trying.

Easter had come and gone without United suffering the misadventures of the year before when the championship had been taken from their grasp. Not that they had any reason to start yesterday's match feeling that the trophy was any more destined for their cabinet rather than Villa's.

All they knew was that against Sheffield Wednesday on the previous Saturday, and Coventry on Monday, they had battled and been favoured by good fortune, whereas a year ago in similar circumstances they had become timid and discovered that luck only favours the brave.

A year before United were also at the mercy of teams who had nothing better to do than put obstacles in their way. Yesterday Chelsea were not quite in that category since their recent revival under David Webb had put them within a win of being London's leading team of the season. They had something to play for and Webb reckoned they could also show off a bit. After all, they had lost only once in their previous 17 visits to Old Trafford.

United's familiar inability to impose their will in the initial stages of most of their games stayed with them in spite of Eric Cantona's cutting loose after only three minutes to shoot past Dave Beasant. Though clearly offside, Cantona ought to have shown the way. As it was, it took a great deal of rugged persistence from Mark Hughes in particular to bring about another chance.

Meanwhile, with two important saves, Peter Schmeichel had done well to ensure that when United's next openings arrived they were in a position to build on a goal. Lee Sharpe, whose recent form has been haphazard, had moved to the right and slipped a useful pass into the penalty area for Hughes, whose low drive left Beasant looking at his boots as the ball flew past him.

Again United failed to secure their position. Defensive uncertainty haunted them and Graham Stuart really should not have hesitated wondering about offside when allowed yards of space in United's penalty area. Stuart's second thoughts meant that he stabbed a disappointing shot straight at Schmeichel.

So United were grateful when, after 44 minutes, Sharpe's optimistic centre somewhere in the direction of Cantona should have been cleared without difficulty by Steve Clarke, let alone Beasant. Yet Clarke, who had ample time and space to turn away from goal, felt under pressure and whacked the ball into his own goal.

In truth Chelsea were not deserving of such misfortune, but having suffered the embarrassment, it was not long before they were beyond recovery and United were storing up riches against Villa's threat. Two minutes into the second half Sharpe and Hughes were opening up Chelsea's right side of defence. Giggs joined them and picked up the momentum before lobbing the ball across the penalty area for Cantona who headed in comfortably.

So it was not to be Chelsea who would show off. United brought on Bryan Robson to enjoy the occasion, but unlike the week before this was not one of those days when his qualities of experience and leadership were all that important. This was more a match for the subtleties of Giggs and Cantona, though everything drifted into something of an exhibition and their excellence was hardly required.

Indeed, United chose to replace Giggs with Andrei Kanchelskis, though not before Giggs had come within a few inches of scoring one of the most remarkable goals of the season.

He had broken away on the left but was still some 35 yards out when Beasant decided not to trust his defence and came dashing out to the edge of the penalty area. Giggs eyed Beasant with some disbelief and lifted the ball over him only to see it bounce just beyond the far post.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair (B Robson, 49 min), M Hughes, R Giggs (A Kanchelskis, 67 min). Sub not used: L Sealey (gk). Manager: A Ferguson.

Chelsea: D Beasant; S Clarke, F Sinclair, A Townsend, E Johnsen, M Donaghy (D Barnard, 69 min), G Stuart, J Spencer, N Shipperley (S Livingstone, 55 min), G Hall, D Wise. Sub not used: D Kharin (gk). Manager: D Webb.

Referee: H King (Merthyr Tydfil).

Goals: Hughes (1-0 23min), Clarke og (43 min, 2-0), Cantona (3-0, 47 min).

(Photograph omitted)