Football: Beckham illuminates grey night

United's failure cannot be blamed on an inspired performance from their young midfield maestro, writes Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
IT IS not just the No 7 shirt that David Beckham has inherited from Eric Cantona, a proportion of the supporters' hopes have been heaped on his young shoulders too. It is a legacy that does not always rest lightly.

On Sir Matt Busby Way the tricolores that used to coronate the Frenchman as "Eric The King" have been replaced with the red, white and black of Manchester United, the film star features that adorn the posters of a million girls' bedrooms beaming at the centre of the standards. "Becks, King of All Cockneys" they read.

Or is he the prince who will never quite reach the throne? Beckham has embodied United's fitful form in recent weeks. Passes that most Premiership footballers can only dream about have been rare shafts of light amid the grey of dwindling form. The 22-year-old has looked bothered by the weekly abuse hurled upon him by envious opposing crowds, but most of all he has appeared weary.

But to, with apologies to Johnson (Samuel, not Ronny), a footballer who is tired of the European Cup is tired of life. With United deprived of Ryan Giggs they had to look to Beckham to cast off his jadedness and provide something out of the ordinary.

The emphasis placed on Beckham became apparent as soon as United lined up. Instead of being marooned on the right wing where the angles of attack are narrower and possession sometimes hard to find, he was in central midfield forming an axis with the more abrasive skills of Nicky Butt.

Given the centre ground his admirers have wished upon him, Beckham discovered his lost zest and unearthed a performance that lacked only a trademark flamboyant goal. Virtually every United attack stemmed from his right foot, a point not lost on the French side who employed John Collins to suffocate his contribution.

It did not work. As early as the second minute Beckham was crossing from the left and even when Monaco scored and the space became restricted he kept continued to produce arcs of intent with every pass.

After 17 minutes he strayed to the right to curl a lovely pass beyond the French ranks that was just a fraction ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's dive; after 34 his free-kick curled just wide; but if you wanted to see why comparisons with Glenn Hoddle are made you had to wait for injury time in the first half.

Beckham received possession near the half-way line facing his own goal but with a pirouette he guided a pass over his left shoulder that landed perfectly for Butt's run down the right flank. A cross and Solskjaer was just wide with his header, but the move had stemmed from the quick brain under the Brylcreemed hair.

That ability to react while others wait was also paramount with United's equaliser. Some players would have joined in the chorus of disapproval that the referee had not awarded a penalty when Butt was brought down, only this time he profited from the confusion to whip over a cross of venomous intent.

The stage was set for the crowning moment in the final seconds. A free- kick from 20 yards out curled over the defensive wall, but drifted just wide. Beckham could only put his head in his hands.

It was mourning and glory. "I thought he was the most influential player on the pitch,'' United's manager, Alex Ferguson, said. Last night Beckham looked a worthy heir.