Football: United return to the summit

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. . .4

Tottenham Hotspur. . .1

THE GAP is closed but the pressure increases. Manchester United are ahead of Norwich at least until this afternoon and once again the question of their ability to control their nerves is the one that only they can answer. Yesterday will have greatly encouraged optimism.

In this unusual season we have seen all of the big names trail and some drop out of contention before the first frost. United ought to be back in with more chances than most but the absurdity of this term is that they felt that beating Bury in the FA Cup and putting a few goals past Coventry were significant achievements.

Such is the lack of real power in the land, and, perhaps this can work in their favour, bringing them the title that they last won in 1967. Now unbeaten in nine games, they are the form team yet with memories of being here before and failing.

For a brief while Spurs threatened to set up Nick Barmby and Teddy Sheringham, and with Paul Allen starting by teasing Denis Irwin, the trend was generally in the direction of the United goal, which also happened to be the way the stiff wind was blowing. Gradually, however, United overcame Tottenham's pressure and the elements.

Eric Cantona's value to United is yet to be fully determined (Ferguson said later, 'He gives us something we have not had here in my time'), but by allowing him to have a roving role across the attack, United benefited from his unpredictability. Several times early on his now-familiar back- heels and swaying runs lifted United and their crowd out of their quietness. Yet it was Cantona's tendency to be casual at the wrong moment that probably cost United the chance of taking the lead before they did. Lee Sharpe had sent him through in the penalty area but he wanted too much time and Erik Thorstvedt stifled the shot.

Thorstvedt was equally efficient when he made a 30-yard sprint out of goal to tackle Cantona, who had slipped behind defenders preoccupied with covering United players they thought he would seek to find.

Although Thorstvedt also pushed away a firm, goal-bound shot from Brian McClair and another at the near post from Ryan Giggs, United's forward movement was largely unconvincing. Paul Ince tried to inspire some tenacity, but Tottenham generally coped well at the back and were far from outplayed in midfield.

Cantona needed to make up for his earlier lethargic approach to opportunities, and by his constant movement across the width of the pitch he certainly succeeded. Five minutes before half-time he slipped into the goal area near the far post as Irwin sailed the ball across the penalty area. Cantona's height took him above the Spurs defence and his header looped over the previously faultless Thorstvedt and into the goal off the post.

Cantona's contribution, that at one moment can seem in such doubt, can the next be beyond debate. So it was here. Seven minutes into the second half he dug the ball out of the turf as if with a nine-iron. He was hovering outside the penalty area at the time but Irwin was breaking through on his left. Cantona's chip found him superbly and the shot was equally well dispatched.

Suddenly Tottenham, who had seemed confident without ever being totally in charge, were beyond recall. Only a minute after Irwin had put them in difficulties, McClair effectively broke their spirits when crashing in an unstoppable 25-yard shot.

Now United scented blood. Even poor Parker, who had never scored for United before, charged into the attack with the glint of treasure in his eye. He touched a pass to McClair and kept on running. McClair found him again and Parker cracked in the fourth goal with more than half an hour still to play.

So, from then on, United could cruise. It was a situation designed for Cantona, who sprayed passes and luxuriated in space. Giggs, who had always wanted to do the same, had never been able to emulate Cantona's timing of passes and paid the penalty when substituted by Andrei Kanchelskis.

Though Tottenham's position in the League, and style of play, makes them one of the softer scalps, United will be delighted to have disarmed them so positively. More than any Cup victory against lesser mortals, this could be a result that gives them heart for more troublesome trials ahead. They could even afford to let Cantona leave before the end and more or less stand by to allow Barmby to have a free header to give Tottenham something for their journey.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince (M Phelan, 67 min), B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs (A Kanchelskis, 74 min). Sub not used: L Sealey (g/k). Manager: A Ferguson.

Tottenham Hotspur: E Thorstvedt; D Austin (G Bergsson, 81 min), J Edinburgh, V Samways, G Mabbutt, N Ruddock, D Howells, N Barmby, Nayim (D Anderton, 70 min), T Sheringham, P Allen. Sub not used: I Walker (g/k). Coach: D Livermore.

Referee: M G Peck (Kendal).

Goals: Cantona (1-0, 40 min); Irwin (2-0, 52 min); McClair (3-0, 53 min); Parker (4-0, 57 min); Barmby (4-1, 87 min).

(Photograph omitted)