Sunderland visited by the ghost of Christmas past

Manchester United 5 Sunderland 0
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The Independent Online
The temptation is to cling to tradition at this time of the year and Manchester United supporters no less than any of us. Even so, it seemed a touching recollection of the past when Old Trafford rang to "Twelve Days Of Christmas" with the words Eric Cantona placed at appropriate moments.

It was wishing at a star. The Frenchman has been so under par for much of the season that any true love sending 12 Cantonas would have them returned pretty damned quick. But with an hour gone and United 4-0 up, what the hell, the supporters wanted to dwell in the past.

True, the subject of their adoration had scored a penalty - his first Premiership goal since 14 September - but we were watching a shadow of former glory. Cantona was slow and lacking in confidence, his current status summed up in the first 10 minutes when he let a chance slip from his foot with a goal at his mercy.

As Old Trafford sang his praises, however, Cantona stirred like someone coming out of a coma. In a flash his genius returned and a goal was scored which had a brilliance that burns a permanent mark in the mind.

Receiving the ball near the half-way line, he dismissed Kevin Ball and Richard Ord with one imperious turn, played a one-two with Brian McClair and then hit a chip that was so sweet it threatened to be sickly. For a second the ball tantalised, suggesting it might drift wide, but it touched the top of the far post and settled in the net. Cantona postured, Chris Eubank-like, relishing the moment, and another few thousand learned to hate as well as well as love him.

"I was right behind it," Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, said. "I tried to blow it over the crossbar but couldn't manage it. If I was the opposing manager I would say it was worth paying just to watch that. It was different class."

Reid must also have been tempted to wonder "why against us?" because Cantona and his team-mates spent the first half hour in such a subdued manner it might have been a Coca-Cola Cup match they were playing. Kevin Russell chipped just wide after 12 minutes and if the striker had not got in the way of Alex Rae's shot eight minutes later, Sunderland would have got the lead they deserved.

During this spell United were in such tactical disarray that their manager, Alex Ferguson, tried three different formations. It was a mess, but one that was tidied up by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 35th-minute goal and looked positively pristine by the time Cantona performed his wonder.

"After half an hour, if anyone had told me it would be 5-0 I'd have thought they were joking," Reid said. "I don't normally comment on opposing sides, but we were taught a lesson by a team that had pace all over the field. They were magnificent in the second half, I'm just putting it all down to experience."

Reid believes United are at their most dangerous when their opponents have possession, their speed and incisiveness on the break punishing any slip, and nothing demonstrated that better than the champions' third goal. One moment Sunderland had a free-kick, the next Peter Schmeichel had bowled out a pass to Solskjaer who eluded Dariusz Kubicki and then scored with commendable coolness.

With that Ferguson withdrew the Norwegian striker, denying him a chance of a hat-trick which would have been a debating point had he bothered to turn up afterwards. Having been mildly rebuked for missing a post-match press conference last Wednesday, his gander was up and the message to journalists from the dressing-room was "Alex wants a rest from you. The result speaks for itself."

A merry Christmas to you, too, Mr Ferguson.

Goals: Solskjaer (35) 1-0; Cantona pen (42) 2-0; Solskjaer (47) 3-0; Butt (57) 4-0; Cantona (79) 5-0.

Manchester United: (5-3-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Irwin, May, Pallister (McClair, h-t), P Neville; Butt, Scholes, Giggs (Thornley, 63); Solskjaer (Poborsky, 53), Cantona. Substitutes not used: Beckham, Van der Gouw (gk).

Sunderland: (4-4-1-1): Perez; Hall, Melville, Ord, Kubicki; Kelly, Ball, Bracewell (Agnew, 63), Gray (Bridges, 60); Rae (Stewart, 63); Russell. Substitutes not used: Aiston, Preece (gk).

Referee: R P Durkin (Dorset). Bookings: United: Scholes, Cantona.

Man of the match: Butt. Attendance: 55,081.