Cantona the United hero again

 

NO WIN at this stage should e derided but this was not an occasion that Manchester United will cherish come the end of the season. The three points will be, though and after Newcastle's defeat last night, United's result looks magnificent.

This was a ragged performance from the Premiership leaders who, disrupted by injury and suspension, flitted between the inspired and mundane. The fact there was only one goal will reflect which part of their character won out in the end. Indeed Coventry, desperate for points, might have embarrassed them with a goal of their own at the end.

Almost inevitably it was Eric Cantona who provided the game's one sure touch in front of goal. The Frenchman is conducting the nearest thing to a one man crusade to win the title and he got the strike again two minutes after half time. It is his seventh in eight matches and the fifth time in that period that his has been the one goal scored by United.

Few have been as simple as this. Ryan Giggs crossed low from the left and the ball arrived in the six yard box via Liam Daish's heel and the bodies of Paul Williams and Andy Cole. Cantona, after waiting what seemed to be an age, side footed past Ogrizovic.

It was the high point of a game that was like United, good and bad in parts. The most fluent spell arrived when the players minds had been distracted by an horrific injury to David Busst. The Coventry defender, challenging at the far post after 90 seconds, appeared to go over on his leg, and as soon as he collapsed to the floor it was obvious he was seriously injured.

Even Old Trafford, which is not known for charity towards visiting players, suspended hostility to applaud Busst as he was carried from the field, a dark bloodstain left on the pitch where he fell. He did not go back to the dressing room but straight to hospital where it was later revealed he had a compound fracture of the right leg.

"It was horrible," Ron Atkinson, the Coventry manager, said. "All the players say it was dreadful and they are distressed. The result matters, but now we are more concerned about David." United's goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who was closest to the injured man as he was being treated, defined to speak to the press. "I couldn't talk about the incident," his message said. "I would just break down." Both teams were affected by the injury and for 20 minutes barely a tackle was made. Paradoxically, Coventry prospered more, and they created opportunities that, had they been taken, would have given the game a different complexion.

After 15 minutes Noel Whelan eluded United's offside trap, burst down the left and was halted only by Peter Schmeichel's dive to his left. Dublin was close with a header, too, and John Salako's left foot shot after 3 minutes would have been better if it had been further away from the goal as Whelan was charging towards the far post.

You cannot afford to give United chances like this and as they recovered their composure, they began to pin Coventry in their area. Andy Cole had three chances Brian McClair was just wide with a lunging shot and David Beckham shot high over when faced by only Steve Ogrizovic. They might have got five goals; then again they might have been held to a draw.

After the match, United manager Alex Ferguson expressed his sympathy for stricken defender Busst. "It was a terrible injury. He seems a young, clean cut lad and you hope nothing like this happens on the pitch. It is a bad blow for the player and I hope he recovers quickly," said Ferguson.

United's victory puts them firmly in the Premiership driving seat - six points clear of Newcastle, who have a game in hand - and Ferguson said: "We are doing what we have to do and that is winning games. Our spirit and determination is brilliant. Players make mistakes but they get on with it. We missed so many chances Coventry must have thought they had a lifeline when, in the last 20 minutes, we appeared to drop dead. We have now won our two games at Easter and that always helps."

Cantona has now scored 17 goals in 33 games and Ferguson managed to raise a smile over the Frenchman's cool finish. "I'm glad the chance fell to Eric," said Ferguson. "He panicked, didn't he?"

United have four matches left in which to secure their third championship in four seasons. They go to Southampton in good heart on Saturday with Philip Neville likely to be back in the team after missing yesterday's game with an ankle injury.