United's rough edges exposed

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 2 Sheffield Wednesday 2

They were words many had anticipated Alex Ferguson speaking three months ago. "It's the first game this season where experience did count," the United manager said. "Their experience outshone our youthful exuberance. We asked them to stand up and be men and they couldn't do it."

Leaving aside the home leg of the Uefa Cup tie against Rotor Volgograd, where wisdom was scarce, he was right. The reasons to doubt United's ability to challenge fully for the title burned bright as the lights on a Christmas tree on Saturday night despite their gaining a point on Newcastle.

Last year United could do without Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona for half a season apiece and still get within three goals of the double. This year, with a pruned squad, the loss of players cannot so easily be compensated for. Five were out for this game and the sticky tape and string holding the thing together were exposed.

This had an effect on an admirable Wednesday as it did on United. Mark Bright, the scorer of a clever, looping 60th-minute goal, said they saw a team without Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs and felt emboldened to attack. "We knew we'd never have a better chance of coming to Old Trafford and winning," he said.

Never was this confidence more blatant than in Wednesday's second goal, a wonder of passing and movement. John Sheridan began it with three probing balls from the left wing and it culminated with Marc Degryse crossing from the right for Guy Whittingham to score with a header.

That, but for Cantona, would have been that. The Frenchman has been doing everything right since his return from disgrace except score in open play. Some team was always likely to cop it and, unfortunately for Wednesday, it was them. "He was the best player on the field," Ferguson said. "Without him we would have lost the game, there's no question of that. He inspired all the good things that we did. His responsibility, his commitment to working off the ball was magnificent."

So were his strikes. The first was a chip over Kevin Pressman so delicate he could not have bettered the precision if an architect had drawn the arc for him.

The second was all power and technique, a turn and volley of a high bouncing ball that transformed a half-chance on the edge of the area into a shot that flew into the corner of the net.

The goals apart, Cantona also had a header turned against the post by Pressman's 31st-minute save and looked about as complete a striker as he could do. "Wednesday reject" the visiting supporters had shouted at him - something you would think they would have the brains to keep quiet about.

It was a neat irony that Cantona headed towards the sublime while David Hirst headed, shot and mis-controlled with startling incompetence on at least three occasions. Four years ago Wednesday were giving the Frenchman a trial and United were trying to tempt Wednesday to part with their leading scorer with a pounds 3m fee. How different things might have turned out.

Goals: Cantona (15) 1-0; Bright (59) 1-1; Whittingham (78) 1-2; Cantona (83) 2-2.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Pilkington; G Neville, Bruce, May, P Neville; Beckham, McClair, Scholes (Davies, 51), Sharpe (Cooke, 82); Cantona, Cole. Substitute not used: Parker.

Sheffield Wednesday (5-3-2): Pressman; Nolan, Atherton, Nicol, Walker, Briscoe; Degryse, Waddle (Sheridan, 76), Whittingham; Hirst, Bright. Substitutes not used: Sinton, Hyde.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Manchester United: Beckham, Bruce.

Man of the match: Cantona.

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