Football: United have the last laugh in lottery

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Arsenal 1

Manchester United 1

(United win 5-4 on penalties)

THAT bane of the game, penalty shoot-outs, mocked and reduced yesterday's otherwise colourful lifting of the curtain on a new season. A legitimate penalty request in the course of normal time should have given United victory in an unusually absorbing Charity Shield, but in the end they only had the last laugh in a farce.

The penalty-kicking competition had taken its course to sudden death after Dennis Irwin's shot had been spectacularly saved by David Seaman and Ian Wright contrived a miss. As if in an attempt to show their disdain for the penalty charade, Arsenal invited Seaman to take what proved to be the deciding penalty which the Arsenal goalkeeper tapped half- heartedly too close to his counterpart, Peter Schmeichel. The occasion deserved better.

The close season's most expensive purchase, Roy Keane, was said not to be as sleek as the rest, although his predicted absence from the starting line-up proved a false rumour and he lasted well without ever looking a bargain. As a result, Bryan Robson started on the bench where, in spite of his resilience, he may spend more of his time this season.

For Arsenal, Anders Limpar took his opportunity to avoid another season on and off the bench with a voracious appetite, countering much of what the irresistible Eric Cantona could achieve in terms of the game's skills, which were predominantly non-English. Cantona, having scored three times in the equivalent match last season, was full of the outrageous ingenuity that meant so much to United's successful Premier League campaign. He and Limpar eclipsed Ryan Giggs and lifted what so often in previous years had been a mundane formality into one of keen competition, engrossing tactical cut and thrust and entertainment.

To be harshly critical, United ought to have taken greater advantage of the fact that early in the game they had Arsenal retreating haphazardly. Although Giggs was never at his best, when Lee Dixon was slowed by a tackle on Paul Ince that left him with a damaged ankle, the game could have been won by left-wing pressure. As it was United did take the lead after eight minutes, though with no lasting significance. Cantona's ability to see space that defenders fail to cover was perfectly displayed. Irwin had centred deep and Andy Linighan failed to predict the length of the cross. Cantona dropped into the unmarked yards and delicately lifted the ball back across goal for Mark Hughes to volley in. Cantona himself had made no attempt to withdraw from an offside position, but the referee was charitable.

The Frenchman's subtlety was unmatched and his energy in making a couple of enthusiastic 60- yard runs may have come to little but rightly confirmed him as the United crowd's most popular import. Limpar is similarly favoured by the Arsenal fans if not always by their manager. He nonchalantly left Giggs and Ince looking at his imprints on the turf and arced a shot close by the post. It was sufficient to bring Arsenal back into contention.

The hope that Giggs would match Cantona quickly faded. And worse, he offered Arsenal the opportunity to equalise, which Ian Wright accepted with the incisiveness too often lacking in his performances for England. Giggs, under no pressure, inexplicably lobbed a square ball across the penalty area and the increasingly important Paul Davis glanced a back-header on to Wright whose volley was unstoppable.

Inevitably, at half-time, Dixon surrendered to his injury. Paul Merson, quiet in the first half, felt obliged to come to the aid of his ailing side. For a time his power on the ball was persuasive, though we wait for him to control a match that matters, especially an England game. And on an England theme, the arrival of the warhorse Robson after 68 minutes could have brought United control. Andrei Kanchelskis suddenly came alive. Cantona never stopped contributing his art. When he lifted the ball ever so accurately across the penalty area Keane had more time than he thought. The new man's shot was clean but hurried, though Seaman's diving save was something to be savoured.

When United were attacking, the match was always likely to produce Cantona-inspired originality and probably they deserved their final reward, though the occasion would have been better served if the one legitimate penalty appeal had been accepted. Ince was thrusting his way towards Seaman with John Jensen in pursuit. Jensen had virtually no chance of a ball-winning tackle and brought Ince down. The referee was too far from the scene to have a clear view and wrongly waved play on. Never mind, justice was done later, though why such a day cannot be left with pleasant memories but no winner, who knows.

Arsenal: D Seaman, L Dixon (M Keown, h/t), N Winterburn, P Davis, A Linighan, T Adams, K Campbell, I Wright, P Merson, A Limpar (E McGoldrick, 74), J Jensen. Manager: G Graham.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel, P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, A Kanchelskis, G Pallister, R Keane, P Ince, E Cantona, M Hughes, R Giggs (B Robson, 68). Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: G R Ashby (Worcester).

Goals: Hughes (1-0, 8 min); Wright (1-1, 40 min).