Football: United are exposed by Cort

Manchester United 1 Cruyff 73 Wimbledon 1 Badir 16 Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 55,189: FA Premiership: Cruyff strikes to save Ferguson's 27-game unbeaten run
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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT just that Manchester United are generally very good. But, even when they are not, they are still at least as stubborn as the most stubborn of their opponents. So, despite being below par and behind for nearly an hour yesterday, they still chiselled a worthwhile point out of a hard-as-stone encounter and, showpiece games aside, remain unbeaten this season.

Two home draws in a week may not seem especially spectacular, but the aspirations of the champions, both domestic and European, are scarcely damaged by either. The reaction of Wimbledon's supporters - like that of their counterparts from Zagreb on Tuesday - showed how highly prized this result was for them.

For United, this was the first of a new season's "off-the-back-of-Europe" assignments. Recognising his side's occasional history of flatness in the aftermath of a taxing continental game, Sir Alex Ferguson warned in his programme notes that "now comes the tricky part".

He has become expert at foreseeing potentially problematic fixtures and, unsurprisingly, chose this one to freshen and rotate his squad; David Beckham was rested, Andy Cole left on the bench. The Italian goalkeeper Massimo Taibi and French defender Mikael Silvestre were afforded home debuts. Denis Irwin returned.

Even so, it is hard to disguise an injury list that includes names like Keane, Gary Neville, Butt, Johnsen, May, Brown and Blomqvist. With absentees like those, and the early withdrawal of a hobbling Ryan Giggs, only the foolhardy foretold a United stroll. Nor was it forthcoming.

Wimbledon had not won since the season's opening day and had failed to conquer Cardiff in midweek. They had also lost this fixture 5-1 last season. But it is when the portent appear grim that this most perky of clubs tends to brighten up. In Carl Cort, the Dons had the foremost creative source of the game's early moments. Inside the first five minutes, he had wriggled behind Jaap Stam and delivered a cross which Marcus Gayle headed into the side netting.

Cort's second such foray led to the goal. Another delicate, leggy dribble into the heart of the United area preceded a calm glance up that revealed Walid Badir unattended in space. Cort's cut- back was sure and the Israeli fired his first goal in Wimbledon's colours.

United have not tasted defeat in their last 27 Premiership matches, winning the last six in a row. But, as they struggled to pick up their regular rhythm, their predicament was worsened by the disappearance of Giggs. Ferguson confirmed afterwards that the Welsh winger will not play in midweek, but indicated optimism in the cases of Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and Beckham.

United's trip to Austria this week will take them to the splendidly named Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium. No footballing muscles ripple more menacingly, though, than Wimbledon's. This was proving as inconvenient a meeting as the champions might have feared. Even without their habitual cohesion, United still dug out numerous chances. Teddy Sheringham squeezed a close range effort wide; the Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan produced the first of several fine saves, one on one with Jordi Cruyff (Giggs' replacement); Sheringham and Dwight Yorke headed just wide; Yorke dragged a shot right across goal; Paul Scholes stung the fingers of the keeper with a long- range drive; and Yorke was painfully close with a plunging attempt just before the break.

For Wimbledon, even the realism of their manager, Egil Olsen ("I said we'd probably lose and I meant it"), was being challenged. And his team's outlook was close to improving still further early in the second half. Again Cort was the potential thorn in United's side, deftly timing his run between defenders and remaining onside before allowing Taibi just the glimpse of the ball he required to make a fine smothering save.

Taibi starred in similar circumstances right at the climax. This time he was the only hindrance to Jason Euell, but stood up tall before hurling himself hurriedly to gather as United's hard-won point was on the verge of being snatched away. That point was procured by Cruyff, his manager's player of the match, whose one-two with Scholes after 73 minutes allowed him to skip around the keeper and rifle in an equaliser. Cruyff now seems likely to be involved on Wednesday.

Cruyff's performance apart, Sir Alex registered a degree of dissatisfaction, bemoaning the lack of wit caused by the absence of Beckham and Giggs, he called it "a frustrating day. We started really slack." That United still weren't beaten, despite the manager's misgivings, only serves to prolong the myth of their apparent invincibility.

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