Football: Ferguson's guessing game continues
Manchester United 1 Leeds United 0
Monday 30 December 1996
Certainly this match gave no clues whatsoever. One glorious move - and that was it. An assassin would have gloried in the icy efficiency of it all, the rest of us fought a losing battle against the cold and wondered whether we were watching a good team on an off day or an indifferent one picking off poor opposition.
Even Alex Ferguson drew most comfort from the three points rather than the performance, describing it as a dour struggle. "After eight minutes I thought there was going to be a lot of goals," he said, but he joined in the general mystification as to why the spark arrived but the flame refused to burst into life.
"The important aspect was not conceding a goal. We have given far too many away this season, bad ones, soft ones, crazy ones, but they all count. Until we get consistent defending we are not going to win championships. It was important for my team to learn you can win games 1-0."
Even the one goal was a penalty although the unsatisfactory nature of that was compensated for by the move that led to it. Leeds have assigned Lucas Radebe to man mark Eric Cantona, and if anyone wants a lesson in how to turn a cage into rampant freedom then the study of the Frenchman's part should be compulsory.
A deft dummy and flick from him gave Ryan Giggs space on the left and then Cantona ran Radebe dizzy in getting just enough space to become the wall which the Welsh winger played off before Gary Kelly brought him down. Cantona had missed a penalty at Elland Road earlier this season, but this time he rolled it into the corner, Nigel Martyn diving left as the ball went in the opposite direction.
"The best part was Cantona's movement," Ferguson said. "He shook off his marker twice, made two different runs and then checked off to the side to allow Giggs to play a one-two with him. That was brilliant, fantastic piece of football."
Regrettably it was the only element of fantasy all afternoon. Leeds looked comfortable at the back, but were so laboured in attack you suspect they could have played until next Christmas and still not got a goal. Put one with the wit and skill to do the unexpected in midfield and they could be a decent side, but unfortunately Gary McAllister is playing for Coventry these days.
Instead supporters are hoping Tony Yeboah will manufacture some inspiration farther up the field, but judging from the Ghanaian's condition that could be a long wait. The Leeds kit these days includes voluminous shorts that drown most of the team, but in his case are stretched as tight as a drum skin. His thighs and rear have increased like the national debt.
George Graham, who has had to endure Yeboah's sniping via the tabloids that he ought to be in the team, was not exactly tactful. "He looks overweight, just a little bit," he said in the exaggerated tone you would expect him to use to describe Bernard Manning. "He needs games because he is really unfit."
The Leeds manager was saving his diplomacy for another question. Had Cantona flicked a boot out at Radebe in an instant that left the defender needing treatment and the away fans sighing? "I didn't see anything," he replied. "I'm sure it must have been an accident." The rest of us were not so convinced.
Goal: Cantona pen (8) 1-0.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Butt, h-t), Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer (Cole, 75). Substitutes not used: McClair, Poborsky, Van der Gouw (gk).
Leeds United (4-1-4-1): Martyn; Kelly, Halle, Palmer, Dorigo; Radebe; Rush, Jackson, Bowyer, Deane; Yeboah (Gray, 70). Substitutes not used: Beeney (gk), Harte, Beesley, Ford.
Referee: P Alcock (Redhill). Booking: Leeds: Yeboah.
Man of the match: Palmer. Attendance: 55,256.
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