Coventry City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0
HOW can you evaluate Manchester United? Having bewildered their supporters by failing to win the League championship last season, they are finishing the year bewitching them again. They beat Coventry by five goals yesterday and could have scored two or three times as many. Yet no one would keel over with surprise if they blew up again. United's moods make mercury seem stable.
Yesterday was one of their good days. The flicks came off and the goals went in. They did not defeat Coventry, they demolished a team who, when the afternoon began, had every reason to regard themselves as fellow championship contenders. City were so outclassed you would not have put money on the visitors beating relegation, never mind scoring eight goals against Liverpool and Aston Villa.
'It was magnificent, a wonderful advertisement,' Bobby Gould, the Coventry manager, said. 'Some of the football was a delight to behold. We felt we didn't get enough credit when we outplayed Liverpool, so I'm anxious to applaud United now.'
Stand and admire was just about all Coventry could do. Ryan Giggs put United ahead off the post after six minutes with a swirling, spinning shot from the edge of the area and from that point the match was over as a contest. Paul Ince and Brian McClair had the freedom of midfield and Eric Cantona, Giggs and Lee Sharpe created havoc. It was merely a question of how many possibilities United could waste.
Over-elaboration or four flicks too many halted them more often than a Coventry tackle, but in the 34 minutes between the first and second goals, Mark Hughes alone could have had a hat-trick. Each time he seemed more intent on bursting the ball than finding the target, so it was with much relief from team-mates that he placed the ball in the net to make it 2-0 after Giggs and Cantona had combined delightfully to put him clear.
After that United entered into the full spirit of self-indulgence and descended into what manager Alex Ferguson described with a sneer as 'Christmas cracker football' until Phil Babb handled Paul Parker's cross in the 67th minute and Cantona's penalty concentrated minds on the job in hand.
Sharpe volleyed acrobatically, if somewhat fortunately, from Cantona's header to make it 4-0 after 78 minutes and Dennis Irwin struck a thumping right-footer past Jonathan Gould six minutes from time. Irwin's first child was born on Christmas Day, and it did not go unnoticed that the nap hand should be completed by a man soon to be up to his arms in nappies.
As for Coventry, a header from Robert Rosario and a shot from Lloyd McGrath - neither forced Peter Schmeichel to move - were all they had to show for a depressing afternoon. Mick Quinn had scored 10 goals in six matches but he could go another 100 and not find the mark if he receives the kind of service he got yesterday.
Not that it affected his manager's mood to eulogise. 'Paul Ince was monumental, a colossus,' Gould said. 'Whatever Alex Ferguson is saying to him he should listen to every word. I had to shake his hand and congratulate him afterwards.'
That was all very well, but the congratulations United want are the ones given to champions. They are title favourites and are now just three points behind the Premier League leaders Norwich. 1993 promises much, but then so did 1992.
'The lads have learnt from last season,' Sharpe said. 'I don't think we'll make the same mistakes.' Ferguson was more circumspect. 'I'm promising nothing,' he said. A wise man.
Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce (Phelan, 59), Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs (Kanchelskis, 78). Substitute not used: Digby (gk).
Coventry City: Gould; Borrows, Babb, Atherton, Sansom, Williams (Ndlovu, h/t), McGrath, Hurst, Rosario, Quinn, Gallacher. Substitutes not used: Pearce, Ogrizovic (gk).
Referee: R Groves (Weston-super-Mare).
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