Eric Cantona's flair and goals were the decisive influence when Leeds United won the championship two seasons ago, and again when the Mancunian United relieved them of the title last year. This has been un, deux, trois. The Frenchman is back after suspension just in time to tip the balance once more.
All those curmudgeons who tell us that one man does not make a team should have been at Wimbledon last week and seen the difference at Maine Road on Saturday. At Selhurst Park, United had their share of the goalscoring opportunities, but seemed to lack belief and were beaten for want of a decent finish. Against Manchester City, they created two good chances in the first half and had settled the issue by half-time, courtesy of Cantona's steely sangfroid.
The rest of the repertoire - his passing in particular - was a little rusty, Ferguson explaining that he 'needed a game' after that five-match ban, but just as important as the two goals that won the 120th derby, and took his total for the season to 22, was the stimulating effect he had on those around him.
As used to be the case with Bryan Robson, when Captain Marvel was in his pomp, United are twice the team with Cantona there to inspire the rest. In terms of personal performance, he was not United's best player on the day. That distinction belonged to Mark Hughes, who gave a master class in the endangered art of leading the line. But even here, Cantona deserves a share in the credit. The Welsh bull rampages much more freely and effectively when opposing defenders are preoccupied with keeping his partner in check.
That seems certain to be the way of it on Wednesday night, when Howard Wilkinson will be at pains to guard against Cantona causing him further embarrassment. Wilkinson's tactical nous, and the enmity between the two sides, guarantees that Leeds United will be a tougher nut than City were on Saturday.
Brian Horton survived the winter of discontent, and decline, which threatened to send he of the subterranean profile the way of the regime that appointed him, and City have climbed away from the relegation places playing football of a quality which was beyond them just a couple of months ago.
Horton deserves, and has been assured that he will get, the chance to build on a short-term improvement effected at negligible cost. A few new, if somewhat anonymous, faces provided enough of a lift to haul a mediocre team out of danger, but Paul Walsh and the two Germans, Steffen Karl and Uwe Rosler, are no more than stopgaps - not good enough to take City where Francis Lee would have them travel.
Whether Horton is good enough remains to be seen. On Saturday he confused United with a clever deployment, which had Walsh and Rosler attacking from the flanks and no central striker, as such. Left with no one to mark, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were duly confused during an opening period when both Rosler and Walsh might have scored.
Unfortunately for those whose moon is eternally blue, City's intelligent disposition of their forwards was in contrast to the selection of their defence. Andrei Kanchelskis has pace to burn and, in his present form, only the fleetest of full-backs can hope to contain him. City have the quickest of them all in Terry Phelan yet, inexplicably, prefer David Brightwell, who was beaten at will by the Ukrainian flier.
Phelan had subdued the gifted Marc Overmars when the Republic of Ireland beat the Netherlands in midweek, but the Maine Road grapevine had it that he then incurred Horton's wrath with a newspaper interview in which he spoke of his intention to 'rattle' Cantona.
United are too good to offer any extra motivation, and Phelan's indiscretion left him without so much as a place among the substitutes. Horton insisted that the selection process had not been influenced by the offending interview, and that he had merely been keeping faith with a team previously unbeaten in seven matches. You pay your admission money and he takes his choice.
This time, whatever the reason, it was the wrong one. Poor Brightwell looks anything but a sprinter's offspring as Kanchelskis burst past him, on to a marvellously incisive pass from Hughes and squared the ball across the face of the six-yard box for Cantona to supply a finish made simple by astute positioning.
Just before half-time it was 2-0, Hughes again spreadeagling the defence for Cantona to run through in the inside-left channel and poke the ball past Andy Dibble's despairing sprawl. Game over. As Horton put it: 'The second goal killed us.'
Rosler might have prised open the coffin, but shot wastefully wide, and a game that was never a classic degenerated into the ritual unpleasantries that mar so many derbies. Cantona squared up to Keith Curle, who indicated that the Gallic charmer had given him the elbow, in the physical sense. The referee let that one go, but then booked the Frenchman for scything down Rosler from behind.
Steve McMahon and Paul Ince then overdid the macho bit, as is their wont, and Roy Keane, who sees yellow more often than a lollipop lady, picked up yet another caution for a late assault on Curle.
It was all handbags at dawn stuff, but a few eyebrows hit the roof when Ferguson spoke afterwards of his team's 'good discipline'. He was on safer ground praising Cantona's composure.
'He's never in a hurry in the maelstrom of Premier League football, and that in itself is something of a miracle. Yes, he does give us a lift. We don't lose many when he's playing.'
United's Glaswegian manager opted not to watch Blackburn Rovers' match against Queen's Park Rangers yesterday, preferring to travel home to Scotland - 'The land of the Master Race'.
'Want to get as far away from football as possible do you, Alex?' ventured the bravest of the brave. Master Race 0, Fourth Estate 1.
Goals: Cantona (40) 1-0; Cantona (45) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Sharpe (Giggs, 72); Cantona, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Robson, Walsh (gk).
Manchester City (4-4-2): Dibble; Hill, Curle, Vonk, D Brightwell; Karl (I Brightwell, 57), McMahon, Rocastle, Beagrie; Walsh, Rosler. Substitutes not used: Lomas, Margetson (gk).
Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).Reuse content