Football: Joachim keeps United at bay

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED may be regarded as the hereditary peers of English football. But yesterday was a further illustration of how they are seeing their power usurped by commoners. Are we witnessing them slowly losing their assumed role as the game's accepted lords? Or is it merely that manager Alex Ferguson's obdurate insistence on placing the Champions' League as his prime objective is jeopardising their domestic aspirations?

Such suggestions are apt to return and slap you in the face, of course. Tradition suggests that when these sides meet again on 2 May, their respective placings will be reversed and United will be set for a Champions' League final, but, in this of all weeks, what price history? For the moment, invincibility is no longer United's byword.

A fortnight ago they were defeated by a far from awe-inspiring Sheffield Wednesday. Tottenham did the same in midweek in the admittedly half-empty Worthington Cup. In between, Leeds were only narrowly out-shone. Here, the Premiership leaders Aston Villa could and should have strengthened their own position as Premiership leaders at the expense of second-placed United, of whom Ferguson admitted: "We're satisfied with a draw. We didn't deserve any more."

Those observing from Bayern Munich, who only require a draw on Wednesday to qualify for the quarter-finals, would have been gratified indeed by the absence of United's forward thrust. Dwight Yorke, the pounds 12m purchase, returning to derision where once his name induced devotion, didn't have a chance worthy of description. "He'll be glad that's over," said Ferguson. "Coming back was always going to be difficult for him."

Yorke's team-mates scarcely fared any better. Andy Cole deflected a Wes Brown header around goalkeeper Michael Oakes, but found his attempt blocked by the impressive youngster Gareth Barry on the line. That was the limit to their first-half productivity.

After the interval, with Ferguson having introduced Ryan Giggs from the bench, United began with a flourish. Paul Scholes pounced to profit after Cole's cross had caused Oakes to parry the ball into his path. But that merely served to re-galvanise Villa and Ferguson paid them the compliment of removing Cole and shoring up the midfield with Nicky Butt.

If this had been a boxing contest, it would have been a comfortable points victory to John Gregory's side with his all-English team exhibiting enough intelligent football to confirm that they are not about to capitulate their leadership now that the competition is becoming more intense.

Anyone who forecast that Villa might suffer from the lack of reserves will have to review that opinion, with Julian Joachim impressing as a diminutive deputy for Stan Collymore. The scourge of Jaap Stam scored Villa's equaliser, admittedly with more than a hint of good fortune, his effort ballooning off Denis Irwin over Peter Schmeichel and might have enjoyed further reward as the United defence often struggled to contain his pace.

"They work very hard for each other and you have to respect a team like that," admitted Ferguson of Villa with rare generosity. "Joachim was a real threat for them. All the talk was about Dion Dublin, but Joachim, apart from his goal, was close two or three times."

Ugo Ehiogu thumped a powerful header narrowly wide in a first half of Villa domination. Once they had equalised, their pressure was relentless, and Alan Thompson's fearsome 25-yard free-kick had Schmeichel for once speechless as it rebounded off his far post.

Yesterday may not be the most authentic of occasions on which to judge United. Their minds were clearly distracted by the Bayern challenge on Wednesday and the players were no doubt disturbed by the departure of Brian Kidd. The wound caused by the loss of Ferguson's number two, such a significant component of the United management team, to Blackburn Rovers will prove a difficult one to staunch effectively. Ferguson attempted to minimise the effect of Kidd's exit by stating defiantly, when asked whether he missed him: "Not really. At the end of the day, this was a game of football. It's about the players and they were prepared as well as they are for any game."

Should Villa continue their admirable progress it will indicate that there is still a capacity in the game for a sustained challenge from an unlikely source. It can only be beneficial for the game.

Ferguson, who has developed a passion for racehorses, is shrewd enough to identify a decent outsider when he sees one. On Friday, he confessed that Villa had been one of his dark horses to win the League. Gregory's side have the early-season form but, like their equine equivalents, are not guaranteed to stay the trip. With Arsenal and Chelsea also to face in the next seven days, their credibility will be fully tested by the turn of the year. This is the first major examination passed, with distinction rather than honours. After yesterday, the United manager will certainly have no reason to revise his own glowing view.