Football: United tuck in to Cantona's buffet

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Sheffield Wednesday. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that the League is a marathon not a sprint. Not quite. Alex Ferguson's multi-gifted troupe of athletes are rewriting the football book of cliches with their unique ability to unleash series of match-winning sprints during the marathon.

Unlike any other team in Britain, and all but a handful of Europe's elite, United have access to a higher gear, a facility for quickening the tempo through a blur of bodies and minds, with frequently devastating results.

United have speed to burn: rapidity of thought, of recovery, of movement upfield. Sheffield Wednesday, with Walker, Sheridan and Waddle to the fore at Hillsborough, had more than kept pace with the visitors for 50 minutes, even taking the lead through Chris Bart-Williams' 20-yard drive; but the red-shirted champions, individually and collectively, simply touched the accelerator.

Twenty minutes later, the sprint had taken United five points clear of the Premiership pretenders: three sharply constructed, skilfully executed breaks down the inside- left channel created two fine goals for the composed Mark Hughes and one contemptuous finish from Ryan Giggs. The priceless Eric Cantona set up the final two with buffet balls - the recipients just help themselves.

The beaten manager, Trevor Francis, a respected analyst of domestic and Continental clubs, could not contain his admiration for United.

'This is the best team (in English football) I've seen for a long time,' Francis said. 'They really are a formidable outfit: they've bought Roy Keane, a player any manager in the Premier League would have taken, and got Paul Ince, who has developed into one of the best midfielders in Europe; but the most important area is the wide players, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe, who are tremendous athletes with great skill.'

No shock there, but, importantly, Francis noted that the prosperity of these players will tempt other young or established talents to Old Trafford, so adding more chapters to the success story.

United's retention of their title was almost a formality, Francis said. 'Arsenal are a difficult team to beat but United have more matchwinners and more areas to score from.

'Alex Ferguson expects to win every time he plays. I would if I had his players. The only thing that can stop them is their involvement in other competitions.'

As for Europe, 'they will be a very big threat to Barcelona or Milan', neither of whom have looked impressive on their travels this season. Back at the theatre of dreams, the reverie and revelry look set to continue.

Goals: Bart-Williams (47) 1-0; Hughes (50) 1-1; Hughes (67) 1-2; Giggs (70) 1-3; Bright (86) 2-3.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Woods; Nilsson, Walker, Palmer, King; Waddle, Sheridan, Hyde, Sinton; Bright, Bart-Williams. Substitutes not used: Pearce, Jones, Pressman (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs (Kanchelskis, 83), Ince, Keane, Sharpe; Cantona, Hughes. Substitutes not used: McClair, Sealey (gk).

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

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