Football: Beckham fashions a fairy-tale ending

Fallen idol becomes a hero again with a spectacular equaliser but the flaws run deep
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Manchester United 2

Sheringham 79, Beckham 90

Leicester City 2

Heskey 7, Cottee 76

Attendance: 55,052

TALK IS about the only commodity which is cheap round these parts. Manchester United have not found a way of marketing it yet. But, in the midst of ambitions set rather further afield than the Premiership, Leicester provided a timely reminder of the virtues of honest endeavour and team spirit. If United have to rely on a deflected header and a dubious free- kick three minutes into extra-time, beautifully executed by David Beckham, to scramble points this season, away-days to Juventus will remain the distant dream of accountants and moneymen. Manchester United TV makes its bow early next month. Old-fashioned supporters, those who pay their money at the gate, might wonder when normal service will be resumed on the field.

Leicester were desperately unlucky not to leave Old Trafford with maximum points for the second year in succession. Last season, their smash-and- grab raid was engineered by Tony Cottee and cost United dear in the final stages of the season as Arsenal made off with the Premiership title. This time, an early goal by Emile Heskey and a thumping header by Cottee 14 minutes from the end of normal time seemed to have hurled United towards an unexpected dose of reality, even before the smell of newly-mown grass had filled the nostrils.

But, in a finale which bordered on farce - the referee, Neal Barry, had to have treatment to his knee and break up a scuffle involving Teddy Sheringham and Muzzy Izzet - United drew level through two England internationals, Sheringham marking his first touch of the Premiership season with a header, and Beckham curling a right-footed free-kick past the substitute goalkeeper Pegguy Arphexad in the 94th minute. The free-kick brought back memories of his strike against Colombia in the World Cup, about the only similarity in a worryingly anonymous performance. Otherwise, a rumbustious match consigned the dainty skills of the World Cup to the memory. If the embryonic Super League can guarantee similarly relentless entertainment, Europe's armchair millions will be well rewarded.

"We were pleased to get a point whether we deserved one or not," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "Because of the World Cup we're a little behind with our preparation. We will get better."

They had better. For much of the first half, Leicester were the dominant side, packing the midfield, disrupting vague attempts by United to find a rhythm and exploiting a strangely lacklustre display by Beckham and Gary Neville down the right. Beckham signed a pounds 7m three-year contract earlier in the week, but picking up the pen had clearly tired him out.

Only Paul Scholes, of United's World Cup contingent, approached anything like full throttle. To add to Ferguson's worries, Jaap Stam was substituted at half-time with a muscle strain which went some way towards explaining another hesitant half from the pounds 10m Dutch defender. United's defending throughout the first half veered between the inept and the chaotic. Had Cottee connected with either one of two low, early crosses by Savage and Guppy, the damage could have been terminal by half-time.

In contrast to Stam, Frank Sinclair, who was still making his introductions before kick-off, fitted into the Leicester defence as if he had been part of that rough and tough old fabric for years. He cost a club record pounds 2m, one fifth of Stam's purchase price, but looked twice the defender. Stam was still finding his feet in the Premiership when he allowed Heskey to sneak through on the blindside. Heskey's shot was blocked by Peter Schmeichel, but, after seven minutes, a blundering run down the byline by Izzet ended with a stabbed cross which Heskey, falling backwards, sliced in off the underside of the bar.

It was a horrible goal, worthy of the local park. "Bad defending," as Ferguson said. And when a fluent move involving Theo Zagorakis and Izzet brought a flashing early cross by Robbie Savage, Cottee rammed a thumping header past Schmeichel from close range to make the points seemingly safe with 14 minutes left. Old Trafford fell strangely quiet. "We are top of the League," came the refrain from the Leicester quarter.

Not for very long. With Kasey Keller suffering from a knee injury and replaced by Arphexad, United sensed a way back. At last, Leicester began to tire and, for the first time since steam poured out of the ears of their manager at half-time, United reached boiling point. Defence became a matter of desperation more than science, of bodies in the box and hoofs into the stand. Like good champions past, United seized the moment.

Even so, the first signs of recovery owed more to luck than judgement. A long shot by Beckham took a deflection, intended or not, off the substitute Sheringham's head in the 78th minute and flew in. Quite a way to mark your first touch of a new season. But it was not until deep into the five minutes of injury-time, with Matt Elliott also off the field, that United drew level. Leicester thought Izzet's tackle on Beckham was fair. The referee disagreed and there was a touch of inevitability about what happened next: a low shot from 25 yards around the wall which deceived Arphexad and brought huge relief to the full house.

"Special? Not really," Ferguson shrugged. "He does that again and again in training. What makes the difference is that the referee, to be fair to him, got the wall back 10 yards. He'll get it over them then." Despite the extra five minutes and the new electronic board which shows the crowd how much will be added, Ferguson still felt his side was sold short. "I made it eight minutes extra and this watch isn't wrong. They're still guessing. We could have gone on to win the game." Though besotted by big ideas, United should be thankful for small mercies.