Football: United count the cost of defeat

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER United's season-long quickstep has turned into a slow waltz. Defeat by Arsenal yesterday morning narrowed the gap at the top of the Premiership to six points and Arsenal have three games in hand. Worse for United's hopes in Europe, Peter Schmeichel damaged a hamstring in the frantic closing minutes and will miss the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final against Monaco at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, which is delicately balanced at 0-0.

By the time the United captain returns, in five weeks' time, the Premiership race will be almost over and United will either be licking their wounds or standing on the verge of a domestic and European double. Injuries to Ronny Johnsen and Philip Neville further clouded the thoughts of Alex Ferguson, the beleaguered United manager, who is resigned to losing Gary Pallister and is fretting on the return of Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, both absentees yesterday.

Giggs, Ferguson hinted privately, will play some part against the French champions and Butt, a tough character, is also set to boost United's understaffed midfield. But Paul Scholes is carrying a knee injury, Johnsen a calf strain and the younger Neville aggravated a knee in a tackle on Nicholas Anelka. "We are beginning to feel the pinch," Ferguson said. "We will have to rethink our plans, but we hope to get one or two fresh faces back." It will be of little comfort to Ferguson that Monaco have their own injury troubles and virtually lost any lingering hopes of retaining the French title in a defeat by Auxerre on Friday.

Schmeichel's injury could be the most damaging. It was certainly the daftest. Racing into the Arsenal penalty area two minutes from time as United desperately searched for an equaliser to Marc Overmars' 80th-minute goal, Schmeichel lunged hopelessly into a tackle on Dennis Bergkamp and immediately pulled up clutching his hamstring. As United had used their three substitutes, he had to limp around his penalty box for the remainder of the game, clearly in distress. "Once the corner had gone," Ferguson said. "We should have gone back to the half way line, he was straining to get a challenge and that's cost him his injury."

Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, refused to be carried away by his side's critical victory. "We have to close the gap in reality, not in theory," he said. "Victory was not major, not decisive, but it was very important."

Liverpool missed their chance to close up on the top two when they managed only a 3-3 draw away to Tottenham and it took an 89th-minute strike by Steve McManaman, his second goal of the game, to secure a point.

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