United's message is clear

FA Premiership: Solskjaer and Cantona strike as resilient champions dig in to stretch their lead at the top; Everton 0 Manchester United 2 Solskjaer 35, Cantona 79 Attendance: 40,079
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The Independent Online
Manchester United are not always the best footballing side in the Premiership but here was a performance that showed why they have been its champions for three of the last four seasons and why they may well be again this year. As their two legs against Porto also illustrated, they can delight when the opportunity comes and dig in when the occasion demands.

The latter was the necessity yesterday, as might be expected when confronting a crass Everton team who barely deserve currently the remarkable support they enjoy. Goals by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Eric Cantona, confirming victory by steering home David Beckham's cross, took United six points clear at the top of the table. The bad news for them, and for the England coach Glenn Hoddle, came in injuries to Gary Pallister and Beckham.

Alex Ferguson's team selection reflected his desire to avoid the fate that befell United after the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final against Porto, when a weakened side was beaten 2-1 at Sunderland. All of the regular first team except for Gary Neville, who has an ankle injury and was replaced by his brother Philip, and Andy Cole (thigh strain) were on view.

Hope for Arsenal and Liverpool, United's main rivals who play tomorrow night, came in Everton's good record against United - 2-0 up before drawing at Old Trafford in August, which has represented the peak of their season - and improved form of late after a run of six defeats which left Goodison's early optimism in shreds.

It was initially not difficult to see why. A midfield of Claus Thomsen - injured during celebrations of a winning goal against Derby last week, so joyous and relieved were the team - Joe Parkinson and Gary Speed clearly lacked subtlety and passing flair, though physically strong. United countered with Roy Keane and Nicky Butt centrally, Beckham moved again to wide on the right.

The start was thus messy , as it so often can be with Everton, as a struggle for midfield supremacy unfolded and goal-scoring chances were few. Beckham's shot from 25 yards over the bar brought response from Everton of a shot by Speed that Peter Schmeichel gathered comfortably.

Everton's main tactic was to find the head of Duncan Ferguson, which Nicky Barmby's free kick achieved, the lanky Scot heading over the bar. From another, Ferguson almost headed in Speed but United's partnership of David May and Pallister, well used to such a battering, held firm.

Ferguson was fortunate still to be on the pitch to make the latter contribution. In chasing a long ball with May, he appeared to catch the United defender across the face with an arm. Despite United protests, he escaped with just a yellow card, however.

Then, out of the Blues' huffing and puffing, and out of the blue, United claimed a lead with their first shot on target. When Thomsen fouled Butt just outside the United penalty area, Schmeichel launched a long kick upfield where Cantona, with his first telling contribution of the match, flicked the ball on for Solskjaer, who eluded Dave Watson and drilled home a left-footed a snap shot from the edge of the Everton area and through the hapless Paul Gerrard's arms.

Shortly after, Pallister was forced from the field with a recurrence of his back injury, no doubt brought on in the tussle with Ferguson, and as encouragement after falling behind, Everton scented a new avenue opening up. They might have had a penalty when the substitute Ronny Johnsen pulled back Graham Stuart but it was adjudged to be on the edge of the area, Speed's free-kick only hitting the wall.

Everton brought on Paul Rideout to replace Thomsen for the second half and the move almost brought immediate reward when Rideout laid the ball back to Ferguson, whose low shot from the edge of the area was only a foot wide. Indeed, Everton now looked more threatening up front and, after Butt had brought down Stuart, Speed curled a free kick just over.

With Pallister absent, Ferguson was now winning most of the aerial ball and Everton poured forward in support. Almost rashly; from one break out of defence, Denis Irwin found Cantona, who had a choice of Giggs and Keane free on the left. Keane, though, overran the ball as Gerrard came out to narrow the angle.

On the rare occasions Everton did get the ball down and play, Barmby, otherwise too often bypassed, did show some ingenuity and almost slipped in Rideout. Soon it was back to the aerial route, however, and from Terry Phelan's cross, Ferguson headed straight at Schmeichel.

United always looked dangerous on the counter, however, and Beckham almost added a second after Solskjaer had chipped him through, Gerrard this time getting his arms in the way to stop the shot. By now that was the United aim: contain and counter. Pretty or ugly, there is more than one way to win a football match.

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