Football: United rely on Yorke's goal hunger

Manchester United 2 Leeds United 0: Premiership: Uncertainty remains over future of treble-winners' captain but Leeds cannot capitalise on distraction
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The Independent Online
"ROY KEANE is not irreplaceable. Nobody is. Everybody felt Best, Law and Charlton were irreplaceable, everybody felt Eric Cantona was irreplaceable. It would be a sad day if Roy left Manchester United, but life goes on. Great players have left before and the club has always gone on, it rebuilds."

These were the words of Martin Edwards, the Manchester United chairman, as he stood in the directors' box at Old Trafford on Saturday after releasing the news that Keane was neither definitely staying nor definitely leaving, just yet.

In black and white, Edwards' words look more dismissive than they sounded. This was not an "up yours Roy, we don't need you" message; it was an assessment of football reality. If Keane does leave there is always Edgar Davids, or Clarence Seedorf, or Juan Veron, or some unknown Lithuanian.

Nicky Butt might even fulfil his potential. Keane would be a loss and would be difficult to replace but, for all his undoubted qualities, Manchester United are not a one-man team.

This was partially proven in the European Cup final when Manchester United won without Keane, even though his ability to win the ball and distribute it accurately was clearly missed. It was proved again on Saturday when they won despite Keane producing a distracted performance which enabled Leeds to seize the midfield.

Keane's mind was clearly on the contract situation - he did produce one or two cameo flourishes, notably a tackle on Danny Mills, but was otherwise overshadowed by David Batty. His most notable impact was on the terraces, where the home supporters' first chant of "Keano" was greeted with the away fans chorusing: "One greedy bastard". The Red Army replied with: "Where's your Jimmy gone?" in a reference to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's departure from Elland Road, but were ultimately trumped by the Leeds choir's rendition of "Keano for Juve".

Juventus, along with Internazionale, remain Keane's most likely suitors should he decide to leave. Yet though his situation mirrors that of Steve McManaman's at Liverpool last season, it is not as certain that he will go.

Unlike McManaman, he has a young family and no long-held desire to play abroad. He is interested in the challenge - he has told United it is that, rather than money, which is the nub of his indecision - but not obsessed by it.

Should he leave at the end of the season United would lose about pounds 10m (his probable worth as a 28-year-old with one year on his contract). But they could gain that through the success which Keane could help bring them this year - in competitions at home, on the Continent, and from Japan to Brazil. The club thus seems sanguine about the situation, with Alex Ferguson relatively pleased.

However, one does wonder how the constant speculation - for this will not, despite Keane and the club's hopes, be the end of the matter - will affect both parties. There is bound to be contact with interested parties before the season's end, for both Keane and United will want the issue settled by June.

In one respect Keane is playing a dangerous game. Should he suffer a serious injury this season he could end it unemployed and unemployable. Injury is the spectre for every professional footballer, particularly one who plays like the Irishman. As Edwards said with brutal realism: "Under normal circumstances we may have begun negotiations earlier but Roy had done his cruciate ligament. We had to wait and see whether he would recover from that. Some players don't recover from injuries and he may have broken down again last season."

Once Keane had proved his fitness United approached him and his advisor, Michael Kennedy, but the pair wanted to wait until the season was over, which is why the issue has dragged on. Now everyone waits - although one imagines Kennedy has ensured Keane's personal injury insurance is paid up.

The uncertainty surrounding Keane offered Saturday's visitors hope, and Leeds began adventurously with a three-man forward line and a desire to use it. They created five opportunities in the opening 20 minutes but were then forced to re-shape when Michael Bridges limped off. While this further strengthened their midfield it reduced their potency, as Harry Kewell had to take up a more advanced position. The match became one of good football but few chances.

The best in the first half fell to Manchester United, a 31st-minute treble chance in which Nigel Martyn saved brilliantly from Paul Scholes, Ian Harte blocked David Beckham's follow-up, and Denis Irwin finally blazed over.

The Old Trafford side gradually asserted themselves in the second period but should have gone behind after 66 minutes when Kewell, released by Lucas Radebe's pass, hit the post.

Ten minutes later Beckham and Phil Neville combined on the right and Yorke got ahead of Michael Duberry to neatly head the latter's cross inside the far post. Three minutes on, with Leeds visibly deflated, Yorke beat Martin Hiden to Beckham's free-kick and the game was won: Yorke 2, Yorkshire pride 0.

It was the Tobagan's fifth goal in four games this season, a statistic which underlines his development as a goal-poacher - especially as Radebe, Duberry and Jonathon Woodgate had previously kept he and Andy Cole quiet with misleading ease.

So Leeds left Old Trafford having won admirers but no points. Martyn, Radebe and Batty provide a solid spine while the quick, young forwards will trouble most teams. However, the finishing was poor; only Bridges has scored for them this season and the need to replace Hasselbaink is obvious. Since they also lack height in attack the speculation over Tore Andre Flo and Teddy Sheringham is understandable, even though neither completely fits David O'Leary's preference for young, English players. But then, as United are finding with Keane, football management is full of compromises.

Goals: Yorke (76) 1-0; Yorke (79) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich (Van der Gouw, 21); P Neville, Stam, Berg, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Butt, 69), Giggs; Cole, Yorke (Sheringham, 82). Substitutes not used: Curtis, Solskjaer.

Leeds United (3-4-3): Martyn; Duberry, Woodgate, Radebe; Mills, Batty, Bowyer, Harte (Hiden, 75); Huckerby, Bridges (Hopkin, 19), Kewell (Bakke, 84). Substitutes not used: Haaland, Robinson (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Manchester United: Yorke, Giggs.

Man of the match: Batty.

Attendance: 55,187.

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