Giggs keeps United rolling

Race for the Premiership: Leaders battle hard to stay at the peak as Newcastle restore their balance
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Manchester City 2

Kavelashvili 39, Rosler 71

Manchester United 3

Cantona 6 pen, Cole 40, Giggs 77

Attendance: 29,688

HOW much can we stand in one week? It was never the epic that Anfield witnessed in midweek but Maine Road yesterday saw a match of almost as many fluctuations and almost as much excitement. At its conclusion, a breathless Manchester United were relieved to cling on to the three points to retain their lead over Newcastle at the top of the Premiership while Manchester City contemplate its trap-door more closely.

When it comes to the final title reckoning, results against Manchester City could well count for much. Here, Newcastle United recently rescued a point after three times being behind; yesterday, Manchester United three times took the lead but defended with greater resilience to hold on to all three.

It was a little hard on City, who have still to win a derby this decade in 14 attempts, which includes three defeats by the odd goal this season. More seriously their plight in the relegation struggle worsened with victories for Coventry and Southampton. They might have salvaged a point in a late rally, having re-organised to good effect in the second half, but were always chasing the game and class ultimately counted.

The meeting of Georgi Kinkladze and Eric Cantona was one to savour and one which illustrated the difference between the teams. One a dribbler and individualist on whom City depend for moments of inspiration, the other a touchstone and team man who draws all United's elements together. It was Cantona who was to prove the more effective contributor.

It was the Frenchman who drew first blood. Roy Keane sent the fit-again Denis Irwin racing into the City penalty area on the left and Nicky Summerbee was drawn into an injudicious challenge - his second in minutes having previously brought down Ryan Giggs from behind. Cantona duly converted the penalty kick, to Eike Immel's left as the goalkeeper dived right, for his 16th goal of the season.

The goal sparked outbreaks of fighting around the ground, a state of affairs that had also occurred here last season in a fixture that is notoriously difficult to segregate.

Thankfully the stewarding and policing was adequate, helped by the referee Mike Reed - also in charge of last Wednesday's Anfield epic - refusing a second penalty when Michael Brown appeared to handle David Beckham's cross.

City gradually got more into the game. Niall Quinn twice threatened the United goal with headers - one over, one straight at Peter Schmeichel - but their equaliser when it came was still a surprise. Michael Frontzeck supplied a deep cross from the left which Gary Neville missed but Quinn did not. His header down found the debutant, Mikhail Kavelashvili - another Georgian signed recently for pounds 1.4m from Spartak Vladikavkaz - and he swept the ball past Schmeichel.

United were immediately stirred by such effrontery. They had mostly been in control with Gary Neville and the fit-again Steve Bruce looking solid in central defence and just ahead of them Roy Keane and Nicky Butt controlling midfield.

Cantona was leading his marker Ian Brightwell a merry dance, and escaped for a chance that he untypically blazed wide before creating the goal for a deserved half-time lead. From the edge of the City area Cantona picked out Andy Cole's run perfectly and the striker neatly turned home the pass away from Immel.

City regrouped for the second half, bringing on Martin Phillips for Frontzeck and eschewing the man-marking on Cantona. Almost immediately, Phillips nearly fashioned an equaliser, finding Kavelashvili, who chested down neatly and shot on the turn, only for it to hit Schmeichel full in the face and bounce away.

Now City looked more penetrating, even if Kinkladze was having a quiet game. "Credit to City for changing it after we had dominated the first half," said the United manager, Alex Ferguson. "I don't think we got nervous; it was that change of system. We got more and more careless with our passing. Maybe our young players are not that good tactically at the moment."

Uwe Rosler, replacing the tiring Kavelashvili, finally claimed the equaliser when he took Clough's pass, cut inside from the left and drove smartly into Schmeichel's left-hand corner from 15 yards.

These were demanding times for United, with David May in defence in place of the resting Bruce, but they retained their composure, illustrated by Cantona. When Clough hacked a clearance at his grounded body after he had been brought down by Brown, he was tempted to retaliate but drew back.

And United drew away. Again City had no time to savour the equaliser before Ryan Giggs seized possession, strode to within 20 yards of the City goal and drilled a drive into the roof of the net to the astonishment of all. "A fantastic strike," conceded the City manager, Alan Ball.

City summoned one last effort but Schmeichel stood firm, turning Rosler's shot away with his legs. They probably needed Liam and Noel Gallagher, members of Oasis, self-confessed thieves apparently, and City's most famous fans, to pinch a point.

Now they hope for favours tomorrow from United, who are at home to Coventry. From there the Premiership focus moves tomorrow night to Ewood Park, where Newcastle play Blackburn. If there is more of this to come there'll be few complaints.