Pride and joy too late for Europe

FOOTBALL: Cantona and company provide compelling entertainment as the colourful Frenchman returns to the capital
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Because of a low roof, the view from the back of the Stamford Bridge press box is like watching a wide-screen format movie - replace the whiff of burgers with popcorn and you could be at an open-air Odeon.

Given Saturday's occasion, Eric Cantona's return to London, it seemed a suitable perspective. Cantona was facing his first real test of composure since his Bruce Lee impression at the Palais and there was a crackling sense of anticipation in the air. Would the drama be repeated?

In the event, Manchester's occasionally wild bunch did treat us to a massacre, but the only resemblance to the recently revived Sam Peckinpah flick of that name was the constant sighting of blood-red shirts. Alex Ferguson's direction is more Ridley Scott than Peckinpah, all sharp movement and angles, with the pace fast-forward rather than slo-mo.

It was all too much for Chelsea. They conceded two goals in the first nine minutes and eventually shipped four. They did manage one of their own, but even that was scored by a United legend, Mark Hughes.

Hughes had an excellent game. He looked a threat whenever Chelsea managed to service him near goal (which was not very often) and was frequently involved in midfield. But for all his strength, courage and ability to bring others into play, Hughes would struggle to get in this United team - as he recognised in leaving it in the summer.

This side is built on pace and touch, mobility and vision. Andy Cole led the line with an awareness few suspected he had when classed as a pure goalscorer at Newcastle. Behind him Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona interchanged at will, pulling great holes in Chelsea's defensive cover. Further back sat the ballast, Nicky Butt and Roy Keane. With David Beckham and Lee Sharpe on the bench, United were at full strength for the first time this season.

If it was a frightening sight for Chelsea, it was a heartening one for the British game after a grim week in Europe. Of all the European results this season, United's exit to Rotor Volgograd, in the previous round, was the most depressing. While Liverpool and Nottingham Forest play variations of the Continental game, Ferguson is attempting to create a marriage between the British pace and power and European passing and patience.

United, by all accounts, were all over Volgograd but gave away two silly goals. A shame, they may have given us reason to be proud, especially as Saturday's starting XI passes Uefa's five-foreigners' regulation.

The match demonstrated both the virtues and vices of the Premiership. It was compelling entertainment, tackles flew, chances came and went like Graeme Souness signings, and a clutch of breathtaking goals were scored. The action was matched by the spectators' passion. This is why foreign players come to play in the English league and overseas television companies queue up to broadcast it.

But there were also balls bouncing off chests, getting caught under feet and running away from alleged traps all over the Bridge. It was not just the clodhoppers in defence, Cole's first touch is astonishingly poor for a pounds 7m striker while good players like Gavin Peacock and Dennis Wise were among those also embarrassed.

Two players stood out. No prizes for guessing their identity - Cantona and Ruud Gullit. When Gullit is involved Chelsea's play goes from monochrome to colour. Only Hughes and, sometimes, Wise, are on his wavelength and it was another of those days when he must have wondered what he was doing here. The support play was so lazy it seemed his presence gives others an excuse for evading responsibility.

He played everywhere, always with positive intent. His best spell was in midfield where he underlined that he is no dilettante, seeing out the autumn of his career for a final pay-day. His sublime passing is always evident, he now revealed an impressive work-rate. Combined with his anticipation and ability to ride a tackle (at one stage he held off Butt and Cole), it briefly swung the game.

By then (early second half) Cantona was tiring. He was peripheral throughout but whenever he was involved United had a sharper edge. He featured in three of their four goals and provided the pass when Scholes hit the bar a minute after the break.

Scholes was widely seen as the player to make way for Cantona. He has responded by scoring so heavily he cannot be omitted. On Saturday his finishing was in the Robbie Fowler class. After three minutes Cantona distracted Chelsea as Gary Neville's deep cross came in and Scholes volleyed in from 15 yards. Six minutes later he thumped home after a sweeping move had sent him clear.

That whole move was a peach. United patiently strung 21 passes together, drawing Chelsea on to them, before Nicky Butt passed waist-high to Cantona. He killed the ball dead with stunning technique, spotted Scholes being played onside by Frank Sinclair, and slipped the perfect pass. It was a team goal, even Cole, not involved, had played his part. His presence, his pace, had induced Sinclair to give himself a yard and thus sit deep and betray the offside trap.

United eased up and Gullit dragged Chelsea back into the game. Their 75th-minute goal was a long time coming, partly because the final ball had too often been casual. This time Sinclair played a careful pass in to John Spencer, his chip was headed down by Paul Furlong for Hughes to volley in.

Chelsea were roused but, four minutes later, Giggs doused Sparky's spark. Having run at Steve Clarke from the half-way line he skipped past him in the box to score. Then Denis Irwin found Keane on the left and the ball was switched across the Chelsea backs, from him to Cantona, Cole and McClair with a swiftness and accuracy rugby league's finest handlers would be proud of.

Cantona almost brought up a half-century of United goals, in his 100th appearance, but he let Neville's fine pass run away from him in the final minute. It would have been terribly unfair on Chelsea, who also lost Sinclair, dismissed for an ugly lunge on McClair a minute earlier.

It was also consoling to see that even the finest technicians are prone to error in the Premiership's hurly-burly. The difference is, we are surprised when it happens to them.

Goals: Scholes (3) 0-1; Scholes (9) 0-2; Hughes (75) 1-2; Giggs (79) 1-3; McClair (85) 1-4.

Chelsea (3-5-2): Kharin; Johnsen, Gullit, Sinclair; Clarke, Wise (Burley, h-t), Newton, Peacock (Spencer, 63), Myers; Furlong, Hughes. Substitute not used: Hitchcock (gk).

Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Butt, Keane, Giggs; Scholes (McClair, 79), Cantona; Cole. Substitutes not used: Sharpe, Beckham.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).