Manchester United 2 Queen's Park Rangers 1
William Prunier became an instant hero of the Old Trafford hordes on a debut when he was in the mood to storm the Bastille, never mind struggling Rangers.
Down Stretford way they like their Frenchmen mean and moody and this latest arrival looks as if he has come from Devil's Island FC, balding and so pale that he could do with a blood transfusion more than a contract.
However, no sooner had the applause faded away than a Euro-sceptic voice was heard - and coming from the most important section of the stand, too. The manager, Alex Ferguson, was not yet ready to be swept away on a Gallic tide of emotion.
Ferguson will reserve judgment and United cash before plunging in headlong. Tottenham today should be a more meaningful test before he gives his 'yes' vote. The United manager said: "We will play William and what we will see is how he defends away from home.
"There is always that thing about European defenders and how quickly they can pick up the pace. It's a far quicker tempo here. People get into the box more than they do abroad. Most of their attacking ends with just one or two in the area. In our game you will see four or five at times.
"I thought William improved as the game went on. He had the variety of facing Bradley Allen and then Daniele Dichio, who are both young. Teddy Sheringham is more experienced and we will have a better idea after seeing that."
Prunier's passing ability is superior to that of any other defender at United, but his addition to their squad may be of only short-term advantage. He plays on the right of the centre, forcing Gary Neville to the left where he was uncomfortable in Rangers' bright opening.
With Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and David May all absent at this crucial stage of the Championship, Prunier would be a perfect asset for the moment. A contract until the summer would best suit United, but would it match the players' needs?
That question was sadly left unanswered because Prunier has fallen under the wing of Eric Cantona. Getting sardines from the new trawler was equally unrewarding for the seagulls outside Old Trafford waiting for his thoughts.
For all that, United closed the gap on Newcastle to four points. Too many of their younger players looked short of their best, the demands of a rigorous run draining them alarmingly. At present, there is no cover as both Nevilles, Nicky Butt and, particularly, David Beckham have reached the stage where they need a rest.
Because of that weakness, Rangers almost ended their run of away defeats which has now taken them into the bottom three. Andy Cole's Prunier-assisted header was welcomed on half-time and the comfort of Ryan Giggs' second was soon removed by Dichio's goal.
Rangers' manager, Ray Wilkins, saw enough to feel that Newcastle are still marginally the better prospects for the title.
Wilkins said: "I think it will be a three-horse race with Liverpool joining in. Newcastle have the attacking strength and if I were pushed I would select them. Manchester United played exceptionally against Newcastle, but with young men in your side it is highs and lows. The question is whether they can carry through with consistency."
Goal: Cole (44) 1-0; Giggs (52) 2-0; Dichio (68) 2-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Prunier, G Neville, P Neville (Parker, 56); Beckham (Sharpe, 90), Keane, Butt, Giggs; Cantona, Cole (McClair, 56).
Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Sommer; Bardsley, Maddix, Yates, Brevett; Impey, Quashie, Holloway, Brazier; Sinclair, Allen (Dichio, 47). Substitutes not used: Ready, Roberts (gk).
Referee: R Hart (Darlington).
Man of the match: Irwin.
Attendance: 41,890.Reuse content