Football: United's fire is drawn: Wilkinson's wiles earn Leeds a point in England's premier game as Rangers usher in the new year in style

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Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . 0

Leeds United. . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Attendance: 44,724

JUST NOW, a goalless draw at Old Trafford seems like an offence against nature. After that resplendent 1993, with a century of league points and almost as many goals in the calendar twelvemonth, this was a mildly disappointing way for the champions to start the new year. A match lacking wit and spark - although not intensity, or tactical intelligence, or a number of intriguing sub-plots - brought them a fourth draw in their last five Premiership matches, cutting their lead to 12 points and giving Alex Ferguson cause for thought.

The injuries that denied each team three significant attacking players certainly undermined the match as a spectacle. The absence of Mark Hughes, Lee Sharpe and Paul Ince from the home side and Rod Wallace, Gary Speed and Noel Whelan from the Leeds United line-up meant a more leisurely afternoon for the two goalkeepers, whose skills were rarely required in a match almost entirely enacted between the two penalty areas.

Perhaps the one o'clock kick-off was partly to blame. In recent weeks Ferguson's players have grown accustomed to leaving their supreme effort until tea-time. Yesterday most of them looked as though le dejeuner was not the hour to be parading their exotic talents sur l'herbe. Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs injected a measure of urgency into the last 10 minutes, but even the home crowd - at 44,724, a mere 24 souls fewer than the season's best - seemed to realise that there was no way out of this particular stalemate. Sated by the brilliance of the past year, the Old Trafford fans now expect to do no more than applaud their team's triumphs, and are unaccustomed to getting behind them in time of need.

A clever tactical decision by Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, won his team a point and cost the champions two. In addition to the deployment of a conventional back four, Wilkinson set Chris Fairclough to man-mark Cantona, a ploy recently tried by Ron Atkinson. Against Aston Villa, Cantona responded by losing Earl Barrett and scoring twice in a 3-1 win. Undeterred, Fairclough stuck to his task with such diligence that Cantona was always playing with his back to goal, his frustration expressed in a second-half foul on Gary McAllister, for which he was booked. The Frenchman's only sight of goal came two minutes from time, when he met Giggs's long cross with a volley that may have been heading for the target when it hit Andrei Kanchelskis. Both managers praised the performance of Fairclough, who even found an opportunity on the hour to head Tony Dorigo's free-kick against the bar, with Peter Schmeichel helpless.

Giggs, too, was man- marked, by a bullet-headed 19- year-old Irishman named Gary Kelly who may be one of the finds of the season. 'I haven't seen an attacker this season who's come close to worrying him,' said Wilkinson, whose assessment of the boy - 'he's quick, he's got two feet, and he's a reactive rather than a proactive player' - led the manager to convert him from a winger into a right-back.

In the second minute, Giggs ran on to Kanchelskis's lovely pass - hit with the outside of his right foot - and bore down on Mark Beeney in the Leeds goal. Kelly caught him and scrambled the ball away. Half an hour later, Giggs whirled away from both Kelly and Gordon Strachan with a magical spin, instantly accelerating into a run that ended in a bad tackle from John Pemberton. After that it was fully 30 minutes more before Giggs got away again, sending in a cross which a panicky Pemberton sliced past his own post. Thereafter the winger and the full-back fought their own honourable draw. 'It's water off a duck's back to him,' Wilkinson remarked, commenting on Kelly's lack of nerves in such a big match. 'He's used to crowds. He's the youngest of 13 kids.'

The champions certainly missed the drive of Ince alongside Roy Keane in midfield, where Bryan Robson chased the game with unquenchable vigour but no great effect, and was booked for the second of two regrettable tackles.

The absence of Wallace, who has recently been in the best form of his career alongside Brian Deane, was probably the costliest of the injuries. David White, Leeds's new arrival from Manchester City, played wide on the left, but will need more time to establish a confident understanding with Deane and Strachan. A right-foot shot from the edge of the area, bringing Schmeichel's only real save of the afternoon, was his sole memorable touch. McAllister looked the classiest midfield player on view, but Wilkinson was right when he said afterwards that Leeds's passing had not been up to scratch.

Ferguson expressed pleasure with his team's patience and composure, and emphasised his satisfaction with their lead at the top of the Premiership, blaming the holiday fixture pile-up and heavy grounds for the absence of elan. 'It's taken the edge off the players,' he said. He will want it back on Tuesday, when his team visit Liverpool. More particularly, he will be hoping for a greater show of authority in the next home Premiership fixture, against Everton in three weeks' time. Contrary to what is being said, most neutrals do not want United to fall on their faces simply in order to tighten up the championship race. They want them to win, and win beautifully, for the good of the game.

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(Photograph omitted)

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