Football: Beckham stems the Euell tide

FA Premiership: Wimbledon at last give Kinnear some cheer by forcing leaders to battle for a point
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Wimbledon 1 Manchester United 1

Euell 5 Beckham 44

Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 26,121

EVEN IF their thoughts were on their European Cup semi-final first leg against Juventus on Wednesday as well as defending their Premiership lead at Selhurst Park, Manchester United yesterday looked uncomfortable against a Wimbledon suddenly buoyant after winning only one match in 13.

In the past Wimbledon would have been the last team United would have wanted to have crossing their path almost on the eve of such an important European game. But the prolonged absence through illness of Joe Kinnear from the helm had, until yesterday, left them like a ghost ship, lacking the solidity which made them a synonym for defiance against all odds. They badly needed to take advantage of United wanting to get through the match victorious but unscathed but, as Robbie Earle had admitted beforehand: "We can't blame our poor results on Joe not being around, but it's been like losing our star player."

Of United's "stars", Alex Ferguson decided to withhold only Ryan Giggs to a place on the bench, but the defence was without Jaap Stam, and it showed. Wimbledon overcame the absence of Kenny Cunningham more convincingly.

Self-inflicted damage by United had not come into the reckoning until, in only the fourth minute, Peter Schmeichel hammered a careless clearance directly at John Hartson only a few yards away. Hartson was not nimble enough to take the ball under his control, but, no matter, a minute later Gary Neville, in trying to lay a pass back to Schmeichel, did it too firmly. Denis Irwin desperately tried to clear as the ball beat the goalkeeper, but Jason Euell snatched it and tapped in.

Wimbledon's familiar old aggression suddenly had a spark of revival. Michael Hughes began running confidently at the retreating Irwin. Hartson ruggedly tested and turned Ronny Johnsen, and Schmeichel required the safest of hands on a day when his feet were less reliable, to block a tingling drive from Euell.

If United wanted a quick walkover, Wimbledon wanted nothing more than to run them to distraction. Neither Dwight Yorke nor Andy Cole could force an inch from Chris Perry or Dean Blackwell. Meanwhile, the United defence looked so uncertain that eavesdroppers from Italy could barely disguise their optimistic surprise. When Irwin played a square ball across his own penalty area, Henning Berg failed to react quickly enough. United were fortunate that Marcus Gayle was similarly remiss, slicing his shot wide.

So, as with England last weekend, United depended largely on Paul Scholes to sidle up from behind the front pair and attempt to beat the outstanding Sullivan from distance. After half an hour he almost did so with menacing power, hitting a shot so firmly and low that Sullivan did extraordinarily well to throw himself across his goal-line and concede nothing worse than a corner.

Steadily, though not confident they were secure against Wimbledon's counter- attacking, United began to open a few gaps. A centre by Irwin two minutes from half-time, more with power than expectancy, got through to the middle of the goalmouth where none of the Wimbledon defenders could get an effective foot on the ball. Blackwell deflected it to David Beckham whose shot on the run left Sullivan without hope.

In spite of the equaliser, the need for someone to take a grip upon United's defensive mid-field area was recognised by Keane who, over the first 10 minutes of the second half, played a inspired captain's part, defending stoutly and, more importantly, setting up Beckham for a succession of penetrating centres. Equally, Earle took his captaincy with impressive responsibility, particularly when somehow getting himself in the way of a goal-bound drive by Yorke. Sullivan matched that when managing to get his feet to a shot from Jesper Blomqvist that took a deceptive deflection.

The effort that Wimbledon had put in over the first half inevitably took its toll. For the bulk of the second they were on their heels as Scholes continually acted as provider for Cole and Yorke, while the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for Blomqvist added pace. Nevertheless, Gayle still conjured a fine, bending ground shot that Schmeichel effectively, though hurriedly, pushed away as he dived across his goal.

The pressure on Sullivan became intense. Yorke's work in the penalty area threatened a goal at any moment. Scholes had a shot from seven yards superbly touched round the post by the exemplary goalkeeper, and simply by throwing the majority of their team behind the ball, Wimbledon clung on against the increasing likelihood of one of those late United goals. That it failed to materialise will have greatly improved Kinnear's health and Juventus's hopes.