Yorke 76, 80
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 55,187
AS THE second of Dwight Yorke's
goals eluded the groping fingers of Nigel Martyn, lightning illuminated Old Trafford and the heavens duly rumbled their approval. So, now we know, lest there had been any debate remaining after last season, that there is a divine presence guiding Alex Ferguson's men. Those who scoff at such a suggestion might just proffer an alternative and rather more earth-bound explanation for yesterday's events.
It is quite simply that Leeds would have won if any of their players had possessed the semblance of finishing prowess; United won precisely because, whatever the quality of his performance, Yorke can always be guaranteed to make short work of a decent cross and an inattentive rearguard. "I know it's obvious but it's all about goals," lamented the Leeds manager David O'Leary. "We didn't take the chances, while they took theirs. Take them away and there was hardly anything in it."
If there was to be an afternoon for Leeds to usurp their avowed rivals at Old Trafford for the first time since 1981 this had been it. It had been 53 minutes before Roy Keane received the kind of raucous reception normally reserved for one of his ferocious challenges. That told you much about United for a good deal of the game, and certainly the apparent state of mind of the United captain. In the first half particularly, Keane performed like a man still tormented by a thousand quan- dries, although he had already informed the club of his decision not to sign a new contract with United, at least for now.
Ferguson insisted that the talismanic Keane was as attuned to his game as ever but, in truth, there were few of the telling passes and prodigious runs that normally characterize his game. Judged by their own standards it was a malaise that did not just afflict the Republic of Ireland man. David Beckham allowed himself to be unsettled by the Leeds followers who, with no great originality, questioned the sexual preferences of the England man and his wife Victoria. A two-fingered gesture towards them was greeted rapturously and it appeared as though they had won that battle. In the first half particularly he was wayward in his crossing and shooting, notably when the otherwise sterling Lucas Radebe misjudged a deep ball and allowed the England man to advance towards the Leeds goal.
The angle may not have been the most inviting, but Beckham's swing at the ball was more Van der Velde on the last at the Open than Van Basten. United had other opportunities, too, with Paul Scholes, Beckham and Denis Irwin all contriving to miss the target during one melee and in the early minutes Ryan Giggs was only denied by a desperate lunge from Michael Duberry.
Before the break it was O'Leary's men who held the balance of power between York-shire and Lancashire, his courageous 3-4-3 formation deserving to bear fruition as Harry Kewell proved a rare distraction to the home defence. It is rare, indeed, to witness United being totally unnerved by an opponent, but the young Australian winger achieved it. If only his execution had been as acute as his scintillating build-ups. But with two decent opportunities he failed to trouble Raimond van der Gouw, who had replaced the hamstring victim Mark Bosnich midway through the half. His third attempt, from a head back on the goal-line by Danny Mills, was beautifully perfected on the turn, only for the ball narrowly to elude the goalkeeper's far post.
Kewell should actually have won it for Leeds in the 65th minute - ironically, from a chance that began with a particularly forceful run from Keane being halted - but the invitation fell to the 21 year old on his right peg. The horrified expression on the face of arguably the best left-sided player in the country said it all as the ball rebounded off a post. O'Leary could hardly condemn him. "I was proud of him today," the manager said.
The tide was subtly turning. Without Michael Bridges, Leeds' hat-trick man at The Dell in midweek turning an ankle and having to be replaced by David Hopkin early on, and with Darren Huckerby, O'Leary's latest signing, taking time to assimilate himself, Leeds gradually retreated yet still appeared to have every chance of a draw.
Yet, just when United appear to be suffering from a case of damp on the carburettor they can spark into life and leave their rivals at the lights. When Beckham found Phil Neville on the right, his cross was headed home majestically by an unmarked Yorke.
Four minutes later Beckham's cross from the other flank found the same head. Same result, too. "They've got people who can magic a goal," reflected O'Leary who, with pounds 12m to spend, does urgently require another striker to replace Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink if his team are to contemplate competing for United's title. "There's no quick fix," he added. "I don't want someone who just fancies days out in Harrogate."
O'Leary's counterpart was understandably not satisfied with his team's first half, but attributed much of that to the attitude of O'Leary's side. "Their young manager has done exceptionally well," said Ferguson. "He adopted an attacking policy and that's got to be respected. Kewell is a smashing player and he caused us a lot of trouble today."
The Irishman will happily accept such plaudits but he knows that his young team - eight were 23 or under - will have to mature just a little more and that elusive striker will have to be purchased if they are to threaten seriously United's position of pre-eminence. It is by no means an impossible dream. "Ah, I'm just a young, naive manager," said O'Leary, dismissing championship talk. Yes, but getting wiser by the minute.
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