Classy United stay three points clear

ENGLISH soccer champions Manchester United outclassed Swindon yesterday as their stylish forward line routed the bottom side 4-2 to keep them top of the Premier League.

But United's classy team display was outshone by the solo performance of Efan Ekoku, who scored four of Norwich's goals in a crushing 5-1 win at high-riding Everton.

Arsenal stay second, close on United's heels, following a 1-0 win at home to strugglers Southampton thanks to a goal on the stroke of half-time by Paul Merson.

Striker Alan Shearer announced his readiness to return to the England side with a late equaliser for Blackburn, who drew 1-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday, in his first full game after a long injury.

Aston Villa also lost ground on the pacemakers, held 1-1 at lowly Oldham, while Liverpool's agonising run of defeats was stretched to four when they went down to a single goal at Chelsea.

Leeds United, who went 24 games without an away win until earlier this month, won on the road again, 2-0 at Coventry, with Rod Wallace scoring both goals to end the Premier League's only remaining unbeaten record.

Andy Cole also scored twice to continue his run of superb form as Newcastle United sank fellow Premier League newcomers West Ham 2-0. Cole, who scored a hat-trick in the League Cup in midweek, took his season's tally to 10.

Everton, fourth and with high hopes going into yesterday's game, were left shell-shocked by Ekoku who scored all his four goals in 25 minutes after Norwich went 1-0 down.

The 26-year-old Manchester-born centre-forward bought from Bournemouth in March, was on target after 44, 57, 63 and 69 minutes. Chris Sutton completed the destruction in the 77th minute.

Welshman Mark Hughes grabbed two goals, and ended Manchester United's jitters with his second just before full-time after Swindon had come back from 3-0 down with two late strikes. United threatened to tear the bottom club apart when Ukrainian winger Andrei Kanchelskis scored after just four minutes, but after mesmerising their opponents and exciting the Old Trafford crowd they eased up.

England winger Lee Sharpe, who hit the post in the 18th minute, set up United's second five minutes before half-time for Eric Cantona's fifth goal of the season.

And he laid on another for Hughes five minutes into the second half.

But the champions took life easy again and Swindon, still searching for their first win, struck back through Andy Mutch in the 78th minute and a Paul Bodin penalty three minutes from time.