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Football: United fail Leeds' intelligence test

Phil Shaw

Leeds United 1

Manchester United 0

"Heard about the golf, Alex? It's 8-4 to us," a media man informed the Manchester United manager as he pondered the implications of Leeds' thunderously acclaimed success. "Is it?" he replied, the distracted tone reminiscent of Basil Fawlty being updated by the Major about the Hampshire score. "Great."

Ferguson's thoughts may well have concerned Europe, though if he had Welshmen or Italians in mind it was probably what Ryan Giggs might mean to his chances of jolting Juventus rather than Ian Woosnam or Costantino Rocca. As preparations for a vital Champions' League fixture go, losing to one of your fiercest rivals is bad enough, but there were signs on Saturday that United are also losing the plot.

While it was, admittedly, their first defeat since April, the lack of intelligence with which they confronted the tactical conundrum presented by George Graham must have left the spies from Turin both confident and confused. A year ago they watched Eric Cantona dismember Leeds, giving Ferguson a four-goal fillip en route to the Stadio delle Alpi.

Now, having heard how the blossoming of home-grown players meant United were not missing the Frenchman, they returned to see Teddy Sheringham give a pale imitation of Cantona's ability to connect midfield and attack, and Roy Keane embarrass the captain's armband again.

Sheringham looks more likely to uphold the Old Trafford tradition of under-achieving former Nottingham Forest strikers. Keane, who twisted a knee in the act of fouling Alf-Inge Haland, joins Giggs, Nicky Butt and Andy Cole as doubtful for Wednesday after hobbling out of Elland Road on crutches.

When Ferguson claimed United were "desperately unlucky not to win", it was clear that the bus home would also be carrying the talking wounded. True, Nigel Martyn made three stunning saves in front of England's goalkeeping coach, Ray Clemence. Yet seldom can the champions have made so little of so much possession.

Pumping in hopeful high balls, they played to the strength of Leeds' centre-backs. With negligible threat from the flanks and no one pulling them out of the middle, Lucas Radebe and David Wetherall gave a passable impersonation of Messrs Adams and Bould in Graham's Highbury pomp.

It must have been like old times for the former Arsenal manager, pitting his acumen against his fellow Scot and prevailing. Having seen his side score freely on their travels and then labour at home, he set out to produce what he termed "an away-style performance".

The strategy involved disciplined marking; prodigious running, exemplified by Gary Kelly; and the counter-attacking ploy of the ball played in behind Gary Pallister for Rod Wallace. The last member of Howard Wilkinson's championship side still at Leeds, the pacy Wallace had industrious support from Harry Kewell, an Australian mature beyond his 19 years.

Neither, though, would have won a part in Land of the Giants. In the days of Lee Chapman, Brian Deane and Carlton Palmer, Leeds never lacked aerial power. On this occasion, Wetherall was one of only two six-footers in the outfield ranks, but he punished a rare moment of indecision by Peter Schmeichel as Kelly's free-kick swung in.

Although Leeds spent the second half in deep defence, Ferguson's assertion that United had "110 per cent possession" merely underlined their failure to exploit it. "You get defeats," he mused. "What's important is how you handle them."

United invariably draw on the resilience of youth in the face of such setbacks and only a fool would write off their title prospects. For them to avenge last autumn's defeats by Juventus would, however, require an improvement of improbable proportions on the form that has brought two points from three games.

Leeds, perhaps flattered by a place in the top six, usually have more trouble handling victory. The last time Wetherall scored in a win over United, three years ago, they promptly lost to Mansfield and Coventry. Tomorrow they face another hiding-to-nothing Coca-Cola Cup tie, at Bristol City. Followed, of course, by a trip to Coventry.

Goal: Wetherall (34) 1-0.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn; Halle, Wetherall, Radebe, Robertson; Kelly, Hopkin (Molenaar, 79), Haland, Ribeiro; Wallace, Kewell. Substitutes not used: Hasselbaink, Bowyer, Lilley, Beeney (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville (P Neville, 72), Berg, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Johnsen, 57), Poborsky (Thornley, 72); Solskjaer, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: McClair, Van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: M Bodenham (E Looe, Cornwall). Bookings: Leeds: Kelly, Wetherall, Haland. Man Utd: Scholes, Keane, P Neville.

Man of the match: Radebe.

Attendance: 39,952.