United exploit fear factor

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The Independent Online
As Eric Cantona stooped to score three minutes into injury time at Loftus Road on Saturday, the mind went back three years, to April 1993, and a similar injury-time goal.

Then it was Steve Bruce who dipped his brow, heading a winner seven minutes after the 90 to beat Sheffield Wednesday. United had been behind with four minutes to go; victory took them above Aston Villa to the Premiership peak. There they stayed to win that first elusive title for 26 years. Alex Ferguson later described it as the "crunch" match, the one which convinced him of United's destiny.

Cantona's goal on Saturday only salvaged a point against Queen's Park Rangers, not victory, and afterwards Ferguson admitted: "It is not a good result for us". Yet it did take United top for the first time, and Ferguson added: "In a few weeks' time it may look a good result."

Newcastle can regain the lead tonight, at home to West Ham, but Manchester United entertain Arsenal on Wednesday. Day by day, blow by blow, who will last the pace? And do not forget Liverpool...

For a while on Saturday it looked as if Manchester United were feeling the strain. When they beat Newcastle at home, in December, they lost their next match heavily at Tottenham. A similar let-down, following last week's St James' Park triumph, beckoned when Rangers took a deserved lead just after the hour and threatened to extend it.

Were United being complacent? They had rested Nicky Butt, who was missed, and Phil Neville. Or had they suddenly felt the expectation, the burden of being favourites, weighing upon them as Newcastle had? Suddenly, they had something to lose, rather than everything to gain.

QPR, for once, were in the other camp. As Bolton have found, when relegation is apparently certain, there is nothing to fear any more. Curiously, the effect is similar to that induced by confidence: players relax, the tension drops from their play, and they begin to rediscover their best.

QPR are not in as much trouble as Bolton, but no one expected anything of them on Saturday. Thus they felt able to play.

For the first half, they traded blows. Rangers had the bulk of possession, but United created the sharper chances. With Ryan Giggs in electrifying form, Jurgen Sommer was called upon to make a quartet of fine saves, denying Giggs, David Beckham, Brian McClair and Denis Irwin - a good indication of United's variety of attacking threats. Cole, as ever, put his chance just past the post.

The half-time introduction of Andrew Impey changed the balance. Rangers had width, while Giggs' supply line was blocked. After a mass kerfuffle, during which David May and Daniele Dichio were booked, Rangers went ahead. United could only clear a Trevor Sinclair cross as far as Ian Holloway, who neatly slipped it to Dichio. As Peter Schmeichel advanced, he curled the ball round him and Irwin could only divert its destination from one corner of the net to the other. His was a valiant attempt, but all Schmeichel did was blame him.

For a while Rangers dominated. Holloway and Simon Barker were excellent in midfield, Alan McDonald and Rufus Brevett strong in defence, Kevin Gallen intelligently led the attack. Had Sinclair scored, when put clear by Brevett with 10 minutes left, they would have won.

He shot wide and fear entered Rangers' game. Now they had something to lose. From the bench Ray Wilkins sent on an extra defender; on the pitch his team squandered possession, hoofing clear rather than taking responsibility for the ball. Most unforgiveable was Impey, crossing into Schmeichel's arms in injury time as the corner flag implored his attention.

Once Rangers surrendered the initiative, United tore into them. Cole missed again, Roy Keane shaved a post, Wilkins waited for the whistle. When it came it signalled not the end of the match, but the end of Rangers' dreams, and possibly their Premiership status.

Steve Bruce, playing as an auxiliary forward, held off McDonald and Impey before finding Giggs. His precise cross eluded all but Cantona. He had wasted an earlier chance, but this time he made sure. Ferguson hailed the Frenchman's third crucial goal in a week, but then they are all important at this stage.

Over to you, Newcastle...

Goals: Dichio (64) 1-0; Cantona (90) 1-1.

Queen's Park Rangers (4-3-3): Sommer; Bardsley, Yates, McDonald, Brevett; Barker, Holloway, Quashie (Impey, h-t); Sinclair, Gallen (Ready, 84), Dichio (Hateley, 81).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, May (Sharpe, 74), Irwin; Beckham (Butt, 74), Keane, McClair (Scholes, 58), Giggs; Cantona, Cole.

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

Bookings: Queen's Park Rangers: Yates, Dichio, Barker. Manchester United: May, Cole.

Man of the match: Barker.

Attendance: 18,817.