Predatory Cole keeps United in the title hunt

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The Independent Online
Coventry City 2

Manchester United 3

When Alex Ferguson was criticised for buying Andy Cole, he told the doubters: "They tell me all he can do is score goals - is that so bad?" Last night the £7m man scored two more, and now Blackburn Rovers can feel United's breath on their necks.

The champions trail the Premiership leaders by five points with a game in hand. With fast-fading Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford on Sunday, the gap should be down to two points by the time Rovers host Newcastle a day later.

It could easily have been different. Coventry could not be faulted for their commitment; it was their defence that was the problem. Twice they dragged themelves back into the game after going behind, but three times they gave away sloppy goals.

The final goal was the sloppiest of all. With 12 minutes to go, Kevin Richardson - a championship winner himself with Everton and Arsenal - inexplicably headed a back-pass that was always going to be short. Cole nipped in, chipped the ball over Jonathan Gould, and rolled it home.

As Coventry desperately searched for another equaliser, Roy Wegerle headed over in a goalmouth scramble. One hundred miles to the north-west, his former Blackburn manager and team-mates must have groaned in unison. "Blackburn keep giving us chances; we could not afford to throw any more away," Ferguson said.

Coventry included Gordon Strachan, and having been outpaced by both Denis Irwin and Lee Sharpe in the opening minutes, he settled to show speed of thought is just as useful as that of movement. After Sharpe, with an inventive chip, had again tested Gould, Strachan created Coventry's first chance after 13 minutes, linking with Peter Ndlovu to set up Dion Dublin, only for Gary Neville to block.

Neville's alertness was admirable as, two minutes earlier, he had been booked for a crude tackle on Ndlovu to go over 21 disciplinary points. Unless the FA take a lenient view, he will be suspended for the FA Cup final.

The game was already frantic; soon it exploded with two goals in six minutes. First Cole ran onto Brian McClair's header and wriggled by his man before rasping in a shot which Gould failed to hold. The ball ran to Paul Scholes, who thumped it in through a ruck of players.

"Champions" briefly rang out from the United end, but then their heroes failed to clear a corner, Dublin fired the ball back and Ndlovu diverted it in.

The half closed to a crescendo of attacking football. Peter Schmeichel saved a fierce Wegerle shot; Gould finger-tipped a 25-yarder from Scholes past the post, then Neville curled a cross on to the bar.

Something had to give, and 10 minutes after the break, it was Coventry. Nicky Butt lofted a long ball forward, Cole and Steven Pressley challenged inconclusively, Pressley fell to the ground but Cole kept his feet to score.

"I have been trying to side-foot those when I have been one-on-one with the goalkeeper," Cole said, "and I have kept missing. This time I gave it a good welly and it flew in."

But Pressley was quick to make amends. With 16 minutes remaining, he bent low to glance in Paul Cook's cross as neatly as any striker. The title briefly tilted Blackburn's way again, but then Cole scored his 26th goal of the season, his 11th for United, and threw it back in the balance.

Coventry City (4-3-3): Gould; Borrows, Pressley, Rennie, Hall; Strachan, Richardson, Cook; Wegerle, Dublin, Ndlovu. Substitutes not used: Pickering, Marsh, Filan (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Butt, McClair, Scholes (Beckham, 77), Sharpe; Cole, Hughes. Substitutes not used: McGibbon, Walsh (gk).

Referee: P Don (Hanworth Park).