Football: Villa succumb to mastery of maestro Cantona: Manchester United reaffirm their position as the Premiership's leading force as French flair and English grit win the day

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

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THE POWER and passion of Manchester United's football ultimately overwhelmed Aston Villa and carried them back to their pedestal, 13 points above the rest of the Premiership.

There is something in the chemistry of these teams which produces a reaction like few others; it fires the senses, stirs the emotions. Yesterday's perhaps lacked the sustained quality of the corresponding fixture last season, but you could always put this show on Broadway.

The star would fill any theatre though he frankly belongs right here, at Old Trafford. Eric Cantona, as smooth as that other celebrated cream of Manchester, accepted the standing ovation after another virtuoso performance. His first goal confirmed United's ascendancy, his second, late in the day, settled their nerves. There was to be an encore, Paul Ince stepping up and taking his bow.

Villa rather smudged the script, but Neil Cox's goal, deep into stoppage time, was scant consolation for their contribution to this rousing presentation. They contained United for much of the second half, building in their own studied way and long threatening an equaliser.

Much as United's manager, Alex Ferguson, suspected, his opposite, Ron Atkinson, deployed Earl Barrett as Cantona's shadow, also pushing Cox on to Lee Sharpe and Bryan Small on to Andrei Kanchelskis, preferred to Ryan Giggs. All three markers had some success, yet eventually Barrett was destroyed by the elusive shadow of Cantona.

The Frenchman said: 'It is the first time I have been man- for-man marked in this country. It happens in France and Europe and it's all the same to me. I'll change my game to counter it. Today it worked for me, maybe next time it won't'

United gradually gnawed at Villa's resistance and Cantona timed his leap perfectly to beat Barrett, meet Kanchelskis's centre and turn his header against Mark Bosnich's right- hand post. Gallic disappointment was shortlived.

United again converged on Villa's area in numbers after 21 minutes and Roy Keane made the crucial penetration, taking the ball on his chest and deceiving Dalian Atkinson in one devastating movement. He swept the ball low across the face of the goal, Shaun Teale and Barrett failed to cut it out and Cantona lifted it into the net.

United responded to Villa's growing confidence in the second half with the other side of their game, committed, aggressive, uncompromising. Bruce and Gary Pallister made vital interceptions and Schmeichel saved from Kevin Richardson as Villa enjoyed their most progressive spell of the afternoon.

The final act was inspired by Cantona, who demonstrated the art of finishing from Bruce's splendid through ball. Hughes prised open Villa's defence for the third before Parker set up Cox.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Sharpe (Giggs, 81); Hughes, Cantona. Substitutes not used: McClair, Sealey (gk).

Aston Villa (4-3-1-2): Bosnich; McGrath, Barrett, Teale, Small; Cox, Richardson, Parker; Atkinson; Saunders (Daley, 62), Whittingham. Substitutes not used: Cowans, Spink (gk).

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).

Photograph, page 31

Reports, results, pages 30, 31