Football: United close on the title as Villa are ambushed: Hughes opens way to crown at Palace

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Crystal Palace. . . . 0

Manchester United. . .2

IT COULD all be over in 10 days. Blackburn played a blinder to see off Villa, and although Palace did, too, United journeyed back to Manchester last night on Cloud Nine, four points clear at the top of the Premier League with only two games to play.

Palace, still not safe from relegation, went about their work like men inspired, creating nearly all the chances, but Mark Hughes's 100th League goal and a second from Paul Ince, so late it was almost an afterthought, tipped the balance to such a degree that the championship could be decided on 2 May, if Villa fail to beat Oldham at home.

Even a victory for Ron Atkinson and his team might prolong the contest by no more than 24 hours. If United beat Blackburn at Old Trafford the following day, that 26-year wait will be over, regardless. One more win would give them 81 points, with Villa's maximum down to 80.

After last season, Alex Ferguson is the last one to start counting chickens, but he could hardly contain himself. 'Tonight, I'm a very excited man,' he said. It looked like an understatement.

The joyful hysteria of United's large following can only have been matched by that at Old Trafford, where the gates had been closed on some 15,000 glued to closed-circuit television.

Out in the middle, United stoked up the atmosphere with a high-tempo start. Palace, though, responded with bristling spirit and a canny deployment which saw their more celebrated rivals enmeshed time and again in an efficient sweeper system.

Their five-man defence, orchestrated by Eddie McGoldrick, enabled them to withstand fitful pressure, and hit back hard to wrest the initiative away from the champions-in-waiting.

Palace, anxious to exorcise the spectre of relegation, made United battle for every inch, and were desperately close to taking the lead after half an hour, when Gareth Southgate's pass allowed Chris Armstrong to loose off a 10-yard shot which rapped Peter Schmeichel's right-hand post.

Ricky Newman, deputising for Geoff Thomas, was too close for comfort from 25 yards, and United were lucky to reach the sanctuary afforded by the interval without a deficit to retrieve.

Palace supporters must have feared the worst, when Thomas, their inspirational captain, dropped out to mourn his father's death. Instead, it was United who missed an influential player, flu having brought an end to Lee Sharpe's unbroken sequence of 26 appearances on the right of midfield.

Andrei Kanchelskis had one of his headless chicken nights, and gave way to Bryan Robson after 63 minutes.

Palace spurned a good chance when Chris Armstrong directed John Humphrey's cross wide of the far post, and after an hour the tide began to turn.

United countered the sweeper with strong runs from midfield, but the goal which brought sweet relief from their toils still came out of the blue.

Eric Cantona made it, with an inviting cross from the left, Hughes scored it, from the edge of the penalty area, with one of those blockbusting volleys which seem to be his stock in trade.

Palace might yet have had a point, Schmeichel spilling a shot from Chris Coleman, and Armstrong, inexplicably, failing to react quickly enough to force home the loose ball.

Instead, Ince removed all doubt two minutes from the end, when Cantona was again the provider with a through-pass which enabled the England midfielder to sprint clear on an angled run before beating Nigel Martyn with a daisycutter, from right to left.

Crystal Palace: Martyn; Shaw, Southgate, Coleman, Young, Thorn, Humphrey, Newman, Armstrong, Osborn (Ndah, 75), McGoldrick. Substitutes not used: Williams, Woodman (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Kanchelskis (Robson, 63), Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Phelan, Sealey (gk).

Referee: K Barrett (Coventry).

Sky's high kickers, page 24

(Photograph omitted)