Cantona's return to form timely

 

ERIC CANTONA is a heftier, slightly slower figure than the slender striker who joined Manchester United in November 1992. Pushing 31 he has had a quiet season so far by his own inflammable standards.

But he still retains the great player's knack of raising his game when his team most need it and it was the captain's two interventions on Saturday that finished off a gritty Southampton side and maintained United's slim lead at the top over Liverpool.

In the 19th minute he swung over a corner from the right onto the unmarked Gary Pallister's chest and the discarded England centre back walloped in the equaliser with some aplomb.

Then 10 minutes from time, when it seemed the whole United side bar Schmeichel had queued up to miss, he threw himself in at the far post to force home Gigg's cross for his 10th strike of the season. "Eric's the best at scoring vital goals," said his manager Alex Ferguson.

Cantona hitting form during the run in spells bad news for the rest of the Premiership. Last year United went into February nine points behind Newcastle and still won the championship. Cantona scored in six consecutive games, United winning five of them by a single goal and drawing the other 1-1. This season they at last have a one point advantage.

"They have the confidence that comes from winning championships doing it again and again," said the Southampton manager Graeme Souness, who should know. "There's no one else who's tasted that in recent years."

United will step up their pursuit of an unprecedented third double when they visit Wimbledon tomorrow night seeking to strengthen their hold on the FA Cup. Indeed, as business continues to boom to the Premierships biggest plc, they will be looking to get through February without having to pay too much capital gains tax.

Victory against Wimbledon give them a home tie in the Rangers a week on Saturday, while in the league their season could be made or broken with trips to London to face Arsenal on the 19th and Chelsea on the 22nd.

Cantona, however, has a two game ban coming up and will miss the Arsenal match. Should United beat Wimbledon, he will miss the QPR game - otherwise it will be Cheslea who escape his attentions.

It was Chelsea who inflicted United's last league defeat, on November 2nd at Old Trafford. They were also the last team to do the domestic double over them in 1993-94. Only two other teams have beaten United in the league this season: one is Newcastle, the other Southampton.

A double was clearly beyond Southampton but for a long time a point was a distinct possibility after Egil Ostenstad put them ahead on 10 minutes But although the Saints were holy terrors in the first half, the Red devils proved to have the best tunes in the second.