Football: United's high-flying troupe find mettle

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The Independent Online
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FOLLOWERS of Liverpool and Leeds may not agree but it is vital for English football that Manchester United prevail at Galatasaray on Wednesday. Not simply to augment the Uefa points' total, which will eventually lead to more domestic clubs earning places in Europe, but to keep United distracted.

Three points clear at the start of last month, a Red October has seen Alex Ferguson's wonderfully versatile troupe advance their Premiership supremacy to a position where their rivals need to win four times (and pray the leaders lose simultaneously) for them to be overhauled. It looks the tallest of tall orders.

Particularly in the face of a fearsome attribute that a year ago was often missing from United's make- up: Ferguson calls it 'guts', an ability to show resilience in adversity. On the two occasions United have trailed at Old Trafford this season, a strength of unified purpose has forced them back into contention and helped maintain their unbeaten record: against Galatasaray, in the first leg of their European Cup second-round tie, and again on Saturday when they were outplayed by Rangers in the first half of an engaging encounter before producing one of those trademark caresses of the accelerator.

This initial embarrassment was compounded by the identity of the man manipulating the strings for Rangers. Ray Wilkins, who Ferguson admitted he considered bringing back as a 'midfield general' two seasons ago, was the composed orchestrator of Rangers' raids.

The Stretford End applauded the 37-year-old as he marched over to take an early corner but those welcoming hands were soon holding heads in frustration. Wilkins' flag- kick was cleared by Lee Sharpe only to David Bardsley, who paused for thought before delivering the requisite cross towards Les Ferdinand. The England centre-forward outjumped Steve Bruce and Bradley Allen hooked in the knockdown.

United showed signs of animation as the half developed, the peerless Mark Hughes and Sharpe hitting uprights. The change of ends brought an exchange of fortunes. Eric Cantona crafted an equaliser out of nothing, guiding the ball from his own half to the edge of Jan Stejskal's box before firing low past the Rangers keeper.

If this was a breathtaking example of the individual talents that form Ferguson's team, moments later came proof of their collective enterprise. Keane rose impressively to steer Sharpe's corner towards the centre of the six-yard box where Hughes, ever the rapacious forward, beat Stejskal. Stirring stuff.

The main contributors to this victory were foreign, a consistent concern for Ferguson on European nights. The United Nations issue is exacerbated by current doubts over two Englishmen, Bryan Robson and Gary Pallister. Robson expects to be fit for the Turkish interrogation after a sinus operation but Pallister's ankle presents a problem.

The excellent Paul Parker may continue alongside Bruce, but this could expose Mike Phelan if he plays at full-back. Parker stuck well to Ferdinand, constantly harrying him ('although I could have done with a step-ladder'), and represents the perfect candidate to track Hakan, Galatasaray's nimble target man on an occasion when Manchester United will need all their guts to find the glory.

Goals: Allen (8) 0-1; Cantona (53) 1-1; Hughes (57) 2-1.

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

Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Stejskal; Bardsley, Peacock, McDonald, Wilson; Impey, Wilkins (Holloway, 73), Barker, Sinclair; Ferdinand, Allen. Substitutes not used: Yates, Roberts (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).