FOOTBALL: Beckham central to United's new look

While a United youngster tries to prove his manager wrong, a Dutch import proves his right by ending goal drought in style
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The Independent Online
A weekend for restoring reputations, rather than building them. While Dennis Bergkamp's quality finally told at Highbury, and Robbie Fowler reaffirmed his claim to be an automatic selection for Liverpool, Blackburn and Leeds were quelling talk of large and small crises respectively.

But Manchester United, for once, were behind the times and bucking the trend. In the heaviest goalscoring weekend of the season they and Sheffield Wednesday, another attractive side, played out a goalless draw at Hillsborough. And, with their exiled hero a week away from returning, the emphasis remained on youth with half the team 21 or under. This time promise did not perform to potential.

However, as they ended Saturday on top of the Premiership, for the first time since 8 March, spirits were not low. If United's performance lacked the joie de vivre which overwhelmed Bolton last week, the over-confidence which brought embarrassment by York was also gone.

Moreover, some reputations did continue to blossom. Terry Cooke looked as dangerous as anyone when he finally came off the bench to make his third appearance; Ryan Giggs continued to suggest he is recovering his thrilling best; and David Beckham again demonstrated why he could be pick of the crop.

Beckham began his first-team career on the right of midfield but prefers a central role. However, Andrei Kanchelskis's departure, so inconveniently soon after Keith Gillespie's sale, pointed at a season's touchline-hugging if he was to get in the team. Alex Ferguson started the season intent on a midfield axis of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt. Of Beckham he said: "He wants to play in the centre but I think he can do well on the right. It is matter of convincing him of that."

Beckham, it seems, has decided to persuade Ferguson he should be in the middle. Playing there he was outstanding in last week's win over Bolton and, though he under-performed in the York debacle, his passing on Saturday was the most penetrative on the pitch. His composure is breathtaking in one so young, as is his vision. United's strong last 20 minutes had much to do with his move to central midfield after Cooke came on.

However, it also led to Wednesday's best chances. With Butt tiring after a midweek virus, and Beckham more of a creator than destroyer, United's central defence was exposed. In the first half Wednesday had the bulk of possession with Chris Waddle, in a deep role, the leading influence. But United defended deep and Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister repelled all boarders.

However, this was because Wednesday, cramped for space, had been playing to United's defensive strengths. The result was, in David Pleat's words, "a lazy game of chess in the sun" with one incident of note, Mark Pembridge hitting the crossbar with a deflected free-kick.

In the second period, as Wednesday's quick forwards found room to run, Ferguson's affectionate sobriquet for his central defenders, "Dolly and Daisy", looked more like barbed ire. Wednesday's counter-attacking created chances but Peter Schmeichel was equal to all. His best saves were one- on-ones with Dan Petrescu and Marc Degryse, just after the hour.

United had little to offer. They claimed penalties when Petrescu may have handled Cooke's cross and Des Walker tripped Paul Scholes, but Wednesday could have had one too. Kevin Pressman, in the Wednesday goal, did not make a serious save.

The need for the cutting edge of Andy Cole and Eric Cantona is clear, as is the drive of Roy Keane and the balance Lee Sharpe can provide. Only Sharpe is likely to make tomorrow's European tie, against Rotor Volgograd, but, said Ferguson, Cantona will be ready for Sunday and the visit of Liverpool. "He is ready to go straight in. You can sense he is looking forward to it," said Ferguson. "It will be nice to give one of two of the youngsters a rest but it is going to be a dilemma picking the team."

That applies in many areas, but especially midfield. Beckham and Keane may be the ideal pairing, but what of Butt, and who plays on the right?

What would Pleat give for such problems, with his collection of (in his words) "players who will be playing charity matches in a couple of years and others who should be in a nursery side". Wednesday are shaping up as a useful team but only Liverpool and Newcastle have United's depth.

Thus Sunday's match will be the first between any of this year's three favourites. Even without the Cantona dimension it will be one to savour. The Frenchman's return makes it unmissable. Which reputation will he revive, the footballing genius or the temperamental one?

Sheffield Wednesday (3-5-2): Pressman, Atherton, Pearce, Walker; Petrescu, Hyde, Waddle, Pembridge (Briscoe, 82), Nolan; Degryse, Hirst (Bright, 86). Substitute not used: Sheridan.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, McClair, Davies (Cooke, 68); Scholes, Giggs. Substitute not used: P Neville, Casper.

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).