Football: United find a trick in the tail

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Manchester United. .2

Sheffield United . .1

LIKE A clumsy conjuror redeeming his act with a bewildering finale, Eric Cantona got it right at the finish yesterday. Exhibiting all the traits that had exasperated Howard Wilkinson at Leeds, he had possibly his worst match since his arrival at Old Trafford but still scored the goal that returned Manchester United to the top of the Premier League.

Barely a thing had gone right for the Frenchman. His flicks went unerringly to opponents, his dummies confused his team- mates and he was personifying a fairly limp performance from the championship favourites. Then Andrei Kanchelskis crossed from the right in the 80th minute, the ball bounced off a defender and straight into Cantona's path.

Given his track-record in this match, you would have put money on him hoofing the chance into the crowd, but he kept his head down and volleyed past the excellent Alan Kelly. Old Trafford exhaled a huge sigh of relief and all the fumblings that had preceded the goal were forgotten. The French talisman had worked again.

'Some games you have to battle through,' Alex Ferguson said, 'and we won because of our perseverance. It was a good result for us because Sheffield worked so hard.' He did not say it, but it was also the sort of match his team would have lost last season.

It was at this time last year that everything went wrong for Ferguson. United began to draw instead of winning matches and the goals dried up so completely that Leeds were able to beat them to the title. So when Sheffield went ahead after seven minutes to prey on nerves put on edge by United's defeat at Ipswich last week, there was an unavoidable sense of deja vu.

An intricate move between Cantona and Paul Ince broke down on the edge of the Blades' area in the seventh minute and the ball was hoofed downfield in the direction of Franz Carr. The winger, on an extended loan from Newcastle, has not always delivered the final ball to complement his undoubted trickery, but on this occasion he used the bounce to turn Gary Pallister and, while the home defence expected a cross to Brian Deane, he hit a low shot past Peter Schmeichel.

A goal up, Sheffield tackled like Welsh flank-forwards to preserve their lead and with United's flow interrupted by poor passing and almost total surrender when it came to 50-50 balls the omens were not good. Cantona had a bicycle-kick saved well by Kelly and Ryan Giggs should have scored when he was put clear by Brian McClair but the crowd had become restless and Ferguson was becoming increasingly frantic with his gestures an hour into the game.

Playing two wingers is always a gamble against a team that packs its midfield and Ince and McClair were outnumbered. But then entered the man whose arrival, for all the misgivings about his contribution at Leeds, has unarguably lifted his new club. In the 63rd minute Dennis Irwin centred from the left and Cantona forsook the opportunity to head for goal to play the ball back into the centre. McClair, thundering in, lunged to force the ball over the line.

The scene was set for another Cantona contribution and he duly supplied it 17 minutes later to prove that even on a bad day you cannot keep him entirely out of a match. His return to Elland Road tomorrow night comes with delicious timing.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs (A Kanchelskis, 70 min). Subs not used: L Sealey (gk), M Phelan. Manager: A Ferguson.

Sheffield United: A Kelly; M Ward, T Cowan, J Hoyland, B Gayle, P Beesley, F Carr, C Kamara (C Bradshaw, 57 mins), I Bryson, B Deane, C Hartfield. Subs not used: A Cork, P Kite (gk). Manager: D Bassett.

Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).

Goals: Carr (0-1, 7 min); McClair (1-1, 63 min); Cantona (2-1, 80 min).

Cantona interview, page 26