Manchester United. . . 2
IT COULD be all over by Monday night. Blackburn Rovers keep pounding away, but in hope rather than expectation after an impressive away win which leaves the best team in the country within reaching distance of the title.
They need a maximum of four points from their last three matches to be sure of retaining the championship, but their last two games will be of academic interest only if they win at Ipswich on Sunday and Blackburn fail to beat Coventry the following day. Leeds have yet to beat United in 12 attempts under Howard Wilkinson's management but they remain formidable proposition in their Elland Road bear-pit, and this was only their second defeat at home in the League in 30 matches.
They were undone by goals of the highest class from Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs, both of whom owed a considerable debt of gratitude to Mark Hughes, who gave another impressive master class in the art of centre-forward play.
Much of the pre-match hype had focused on Eric Cantona and his return to face the team he left amid much acrimony, but threats to his well-being from Leeds' hooligan fringe had all the substance of hot air, and in football terms he had no more than a supporting role, with Hughes the leading man, in every sense.
Lee Chapman, the former Leeds warhorse, had described the atmosphere whenever these two sides meet as 'not unlike a Nuremburg rally' - an assessment more accurate than his work has been for West Ham of late.
A long run in enmity was fuelled when Leeds supporters dishonoured the memory of Sir Matt Busby by barracking throughout the minute's silence called after his death, and the ill-feeling which attended last night's match was such that 'special precautions' were deemed necessary to counter the threat of an extremist attack on Cantona.
United were said to have brought a 'minder' to protect the players' player of the year, who won a championship medal at Elland Road before the flit which took him across the Pennines 18 months ago.
A minder of another sort had been allocated when the two teams last slogged it out, in a goalless draw at Old Trafford on New Year's Day. The adhesive attentions of Chris Fairclough had subdued the Gallic genius on that far from memorable occasion, and there was never any likelihood of Leeds allowing him the freedom of his old stamping ground (if you will pardon the expression) last night. Fairclough was again the most diligent of man markers.
Chances were few and far between during a cagey opening, the first of any consequence delayed until the 40th minute.
The kick-start the game needed was supplied when Gary Speed plunged in ahead of Steve Bruce at the far post to get his head to Gordon Strachan's right-wing cross. The header was good and strong, but Peter Schmeichel proved equal to it, with an all-consuming save.
United's response saw Cantona hold off three converging defenders to meet Denis Irwin's left-wing cross with a hooked volley, well saved.
Speed and Cantona had lit the fuse, and smoke became fire two minutes into the second half, when United scored a goal of classic simplicity. Kanchelskis was both instigator and finisher, but was well served by Hughes, who accepted the Ukrainian's short pass from the left and burst past David Wetherall on the edge of the penalty area before supplying the winger with a lovely return ball, side-footed home from nine yards.
United put a point beyond Leeds' reach with a gem of a goal, six minutes from the end. Giggs played the ball up to Hughes and the return was weighted to perfection, enabling the younger of the two Welshmen to shoot firmly past Lukic from 10 yards.
Leeds United (4-1-3-2): Lukic; Kelly, Newsome, Wetherall (Whelan, 75), Dorigo (Pemberton, 50); Fairclough; Strachan, McAllister, Speed; Deane, Wallace. Substitute not used: Beeney (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs; Cantona, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Robson, McClair, Walsh (gk).
Referee: P Don (Hanworth Park, Middlesex).
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