Football: United absorb crazy lessons

Wimbledon 1 Manchester United 1
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IMAGINE THE scene at the Cliff, Manchester United's windswept training pitch by the River Irwell this morning. Imagine Steve McLaren, the new lieutenant, barking orders in his still-shiny Umbro windcheater while Alex Ferguson stands by the sidelines, chewing gum and nodding his head approvingly.

Imagine them putting on a series of match-play scenarios in preparation for the challenge of Juventus on Wednesday.

So far, so good. Now imagine them asking the biggest apprentices to push up on Henning Berg and the rest of the back four while Peter Schmeichel and Raimond van der Gouw launch a series of high balls from 50 yards away. The midfielders, Roy Keane. Paul Scholes and company, are asked to stand in between and fight for the second ball.

No, the imagination will not stretch that far, not when the task, for United's defence and midfield on Wednesday, is to guard against conceding an all-important away goal to the swift counter-attack. To block the slide- rule passes of Zinedine Zidane or Didier Deschamps, and track the quicksilver movement of Filippo Inghazi. No, Wimbledon away was not, perhaps, the best preparation for Wednesday's European Cup semi-final. The perpetual underdogs may play a more refined game these days but, for a variety of reasons, they frequently rolled back the years to the era of Dave Beasant and John Fashanu on Saturday.

And yet, there were elements of the match which will be echoed at Old Trafford on Wednesday. There were also lessons to be absorbed. Gary Neville, having admitted on Saturday that he had not given his Polish opponent enough respect at Wembley last week, was reminded again of the need to concentrate at all times, and to be decisive, when his error allowed Wimbledon an early goal. Had Denis Irwin been similarly punished a few minutes later United might well have lost.

Instead they gradually grabbed ascendancy in midfield, then had an hour's practice at breaking down a deep, packed and committed defence. They succeeded only once, which may not be enough against Juventus. At Old Trafford their interplay will have to be sharper, their crossing more accurate and heading more determined. Wimbledon virtually ceded the right flank to David Beckham, backing themselves successfully to win the ball in the air when it arrived. Dwight Yorke, so deadly against Internazionale, managed only one header at goal and he put that wide.

Above all, however, United will hope that Angelo Peruzzi, the Italian champions' goalkeeper, does not match the sure handling, bravery and agility shown by Neil Sullivan. The Scottish international's future is a matter of regular speculation, with United alleged to be one of the suitors. As David Kemp, Wimbledon's caretaker-manager obliquely admitted afterwards, he will have done his chances of such a move no harm on Saturday.

He may, however, have damaged United's hopes of regaining their crown, though similar resistance by Southampton at The Dell meant Arsenal were unable to cut their four-point lead. They have another chance to do so at home to Blackburn tomorrow. United, meanwhile, do not play in the League again for 12 days, by which time Chelsea could be top.

"We worked hard so I can't complain but we got in good crossing positions without causing them difficulties," said a muted Ferguson afterwards. Kemp, pressed as to whether United had Europe on their minds, noted: "No one said that when they beat us 5-1 just before a European game [the successful trip to Brondby] earlier in the season: give us a bit of credit because we deserve it."

Saturday's point, their first in a month, ended the sense of drift which had set in at Wimbledon during the absence of Joe Kinnear. The Wimbledon manager, happily, is understood to be on the mend but unlikely to return before the summer.

There is no need. The club will not go down but nor will they challenge for a Uefa Cup spot. The Intertoto Cup, which Wimbledon are in line for, is not worth rushing back for. If the team's play was often rustic on Saturday it was not entirely a reflection of Kinnear's absence or their recent poor form.

United allowed them so little of the ball, and closed them down so effectively in midfield, the hoof would probably have become the preferred option even if it had not brought an early dividend.

That came in the fourth minute when Neville hesitated under a long clearance from Sullivan, allowing Jason Euell to seize on his weakly headed backpass and round Schmeichel. Euell's early promise is beginning to bloom: this was his 10th goal of a season spent largely in midfield.

Had he been as clinical from John Hartson's pass soon afterwards, or had Gayle or Ceri Hughes taken good chances, there might have been an upset but Keane then took control. Sullivan twice denied him, and prevented Scholes repeating last weekend's heroics, but was beaten just before the break when Beckham, finishing a move he started, seized on a Dean Blackwell error from Irwin's fine cross.

United camped in the Dons's half in the second period but could not extend an extraordinary sequence of nine successive League wins over the party- poopers. That record is among the best illustrations of United's dominance of the Premiership: to consistently defeat a Wimbledon side which will always be fired up against a team such as United requires the same mix of silk and steel which creates champions.

"They are relentless, they push people forward, are confident in their ability, and are probably the best team in Europe," said Kemp. "I think they'll win the title and the European Cup as well."

Goals: Euell (4) 1-0; Beckham (43) 1-1.

Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Thatcher, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble (Ardley, 79); Euell, Earle, C Hughes (Roberts, 80); M Hughes, Hartson (Cort, 66), Gayle. Substitutes not used: Heald (gk), Ainsworth.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Blomqvist (Solskjaer, 71); Cole, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Giggs, P Neville, Butt.

Referee: G Barber (Tring).

Bookings: Wimbledon: Cort. Manchester United: Berg.

Man of the match: Sullivan.

Attendance: 26,121.