Football Commentary: United drawing comfort from no man's land: Happy Ferguson

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The Independent Online
BLACKBURN ROVERS treated it as a cup tie and managed no more than a single point, Leeds United played it more like a training exercise and fared no better. Tomorrow it is the turn of Liverpool, the traditional enemy, to try to slow Manchester United's irresistible march towards another title.

There is no love lost between these great red rivals, and if Liverpool fail it is likely to be for want of wit, not will.

Held goalless by Leeds on Saturday, United have now drawn four of their last seven matches, but it would be unwise to read too much into that. The four games in question were all against top-six opposition, and they scored 11 times in winning the other three. Hardly Devon Loch stuff.

Twelve points clear going into the new year, it must now be a question of who comes second. If the leaders were going to let it slip, it would have been over the last four weeks, when their opponents included Norwich City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Leeds, all of whom looked dangerous. On paper.

Unfortunately for those who prefer a chase to a procession, translating threat into three points proved beyond the lot of them, and that no man's land gap yawns as wide as ever.

Saturday provided the first real examination of the champions' vaunted strength in depth. They passed. Without three of their best players - Paul Ince, Lee Sharpe and Mark Hughes - they promoted Bryan Robson and Brian McClair with minimal disruption to poise or pattern.

Leeds, in contrast, were clearly handicapped by the absence of Gary Speed and Rod Wallace, and had to settle for a spoiling game, with a picket line of five stretched across the back.

Howard Wilkinson insisted that they had journeyed in search of a win, but his players appeared not to share the managerial ambition, and went about their work in defensive mode.

The result was a poor spectacle, tepid by comparison with the up-and-at-'em fight Blackburn had put up the previous week.

Good as they are, United were not quite good enough, without the thrust of Ince and Hughes, to break down Leeds' reinforced barricade, and infiltration was beyond them, too, with Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona held in check by the assiduous attentions of Gary Kelly and Chris Fairclough. With precious little going on elsewhere, these man-to-man duels were the most interesting feature of a drab match.

Fairclough is an accomplished defender who has been something of an under-achiever since his breakthrough years with Nottingham Forest saw him capped by England at Under-21 level. He never quite did himself justice at Tottenham, but experience has brought maturity, and the knowledge gleaned of Cantona when they played together was put to good use.

Fairclough stuck tight to his man, denying him the time and space to execute the spinning turns with which he creates danger out of nothing.

Even more impressive, given his youth and inexperience, was Kelly's effective policing of Giggs. The 19-year-old Irishman converted from striker to right-back as recently as July, but looks a natural. Wilkinson says he has yet to see a forward trouble him, and that he now wishes he had gambled on him last season, when the position was Leeds' Achilles' heel.

Apart from his tenacious marking of the most difficult opponent a full-back can expect to encounter, Kelly also found time to get forward and cause United occasional moments of anxiety with his enthusiastic forays down the right.

In terms of temperament, as well as talent, the young man has been a real find. The baying of a hostile full house was no problem for him, Wilkinson said. 'He's one of 13 kids, so he's used to a crowd.'

Elsewhere, Leeds offered not much more than defensive resilience and some useful work in midfield from Gary McAllister.

To his credit, there was no flannel from their manager. 'My lot just didn't pass the ball well,' Wilkinson said, adding that they had failed to fulfill their obligation to entertain. 'Unfortunately, the game you saw was not the game we wanted.'

Attacking shortcomings apart, he took some satisfaction from the performance, and result. 'We came here last season with, by reputation, better players, and got 'banjoed'. This time we stuck to our task and defended well, at least.'

Leeds, in fact, came closest to breaking the stalemate when Fairclough headed a Tony Dorigo free-kick against the crossbar - their only chance of note.

United made all the running, but were enmeshed time and again in a defensive net which restricted them, for the most part, to potshots from improbable distances.

Alex Ferguson spoke of his 'frustration', but looked and sounded like contentment personified. 'If you look at the fixtures,' he said, 'December was a tricky month for us. We came through with our lead intact, which means we've done a good job.'

He had no complaints with Leeds' defensive deployment. 'Howard Wilkinson is a positive manager, but I think the number of games we've played recently took the edge off both teams. Still, the changes I had to make made little difference to us, and we're 15 points clear of Leeds and 12 ahead of Blackburn. I'm happy with that.'

Liverpool tomorrow represents 'another test', but Anfield has long ceased to be the forbidding fortress of yesteryear, and United go there in expectation, rather than hope, these days.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Robson, Giggs; McClair, Cantona. Substitutes not used: Sealey (gk), Ferguson, Dublin.

Leeds United (5-3-2): Beeney; Kelly, Fairclough, Newsome, Pemberton, Dorigo; Strachan, McAllister, Hodge (Sharp, 85); Deane, White. Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Wetherall.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

(Photograph omitted)