DAVID BECKHAM returns to the Champions' League stage in Florence tomorrow after a week in which the bandwagon for the Manchester United midfielder's election as European Footballer of the Year veered from the fast lane towards the hard shoulder.
Beckham's response to being the scapegoat for England's World Cup exit had suggested that his temperament was starting to catch up with his technique. Yet no sooner had Kevin Keegan hailed him as a worthy successor to the Continent's most god-like geniuses than he spent 180 minutes in the respective pockets of such globally renowned markers as Paul Ritchie and Callum Davidson, followed by an unedifying part in Derby's sixth home defeat.
Stefan Schnoor, admittedly, invited his own dismissal, ploughing through Dwight Yorke in the 40th minute after being cautioned for dissent moments earlier. What enraged Derby was that when it seemed Mike Reed was undecided about a second yellow card, and the automatic red, Beckham and Gary Neville ran over in an apparent attempt to pressure the referee into banishing the defender.
Beckham's culpability was compounded by the fact that he had provoked the German with a sly kick across his chest in an earlier tangle. Clearly, he still cannot curb the petulance which cost him, not to mention his country, dear against Argentina in France.
The linesman's failure to spot that incident, virtually under his nose, clearly angered Schnoor, whose frustration soon boiled over into a costly tirade. Ironically, he had hardly sunk into his early bath when Yorke berated the same official without being penalised.
The inconsistency of referees is a hoary old chestnut which Mr Reed, among others, is evidently intent on giving new life. While he had no option other than to expel Schnoor, he failed even to stop play after a vicious challenge by Derby's Dean Sturridge on Phil Neville. As a dereliction of duty, it ranked with the Spaniard at Hampden Park who deemed Don Hutchison's lunge at Paul Scholes acceptable.
As the Derby manager, Jim Smith, observed, a trifle richly, it is sad how often the post-match debate centres on the arbiters. The artistry on show here did not inspire excited discourse, United seldom having to move above second gear against hosts who were already under-strength.
The 10 men maintained parity for only eight minutes before Nicky Butt struck on the half-volley. Andy Cole later headed in a cross by the outstanding Ryan Giggs, though there was still time for Raimond van der Gouw to highlight United's ongoing travails in goal with a Massimo Taibi-style dash into no-man's land for a free-kick which Rory Delap reached first.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men will need to be much sharper in the Renaissance city than they were at Pride Park, where Derby sought to negate their superior skills by biting in the tackle and setting what Sir Alex termed a "cup-tie tempo". A side who finished with three teenagers - Marvin Robinson, Malcolm Christie and the eye-catching Adam Murray - could have capitulated once depleted and trailing, but Smith's team are made of sterner stuff than the Nottingham Forest outfit United trashed 8-1 when last in the East Midlands. That resilience, allied to the prospect of Georghe Kinkladze lending sorely needed creative verve if he receives a work permit tomorrow, should enable Derby to survive the struggle ahead. It could be a test of boardroom nerve in the short term, though; the next two fixtures pit them against Arsenal and Leeds.
United, of course, face games of such intensity almost every time they play, as well as vilification from opposing fans, which had made Beckham's grace under pressure all the more laudable. If he really is to rank alongside Cruyff and Di Stefano, it could be time to free him from the right flank, where a lack of pace counts against him, and to hand him the playmaker's mantle merited by his range and vision.
Talking of eyesight, Mr Reed is now the only official with 50 yellows to his name. With six reds in 10 matches to boot, he has a clear lead in one Premiership table. Worryingly for their title rivals, United have eased into a similar position in the league which really matters without moving into overdrive.
Goals: Butt (53) 0-1; Cole (84) 0-2; Delap (90) 1-2.
Derby County (5-3-2): Poom; Delap, Laursen, Carbonari, Schnoor, Dorigo; Borbokis (Christie, 74), Powell, Johnson; Robinson, Sturridge (Murray, 74). Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Prior, Boertien.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Gouw; G Neville, Stam, Silvestre (Berg, 78), P Neville; Beckham (Solskjaer, 87), Keane, Butt, Giggs; Yorke, Cole. Substitutes not used: Taibi (gk), Sheringham, Scholes.
Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).
Bookings: Derby: Borbokis, Carbonari, Schnoor, Johnson, Robinson. Man Utd: Butt. Sending-off: Derby: Schnoor.
Man of the match: Giggs.