Beckham puts the strut in United

No hiding place at Old Trafford for the under-strength and under-age
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Anyone aroused by the prospect of the reopening of trans-Pennine hostilities was to be sadly disillusioned. This latter-day War of the Roses ended in meek surrender as Leeds hoisted the white flag virtually before the game started. Not by their own design, it must be stressed, but by force of circumstance.

Anyone aroused by the prospect of the reopening of trans-Pennine hostilities was to be sadly disillusioned. This latter-day War of the Roses ended in meek surrender as Leeds hoisted the white flag virtually before the game started. Not by their own design, it must be stressed, but by force of circumstance.

Eleven players absent, five of them automatic starters if fit, is no way to confront the champions on home territory. With the debutant central defender Danny Hay, a towering New Zealander, among a Leeds side which looked straight out of central casting for Grange Hill, a sense of equality about the contest lasted only half an hour.

Then the coming of the boy David transformed events. Beckham, suffering from a touch of the snuffles, had been left on the bench, alongside Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole, with Tuesday's game against Anderlecht in mind. But the England midfielder's substitution for the injured Roy Keane was the catalyst which brought lustre to an initially insipid performance by the home side.

Three goals were ultimately scant reward for their superiority. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, not prone to discussing opponents' shortcomings, was moved to comment: "Once I saw the Leeds team, I thought it would be a difficult day for them."Ferguson appeared genuinely sympathetic, but he could afford to be in the knowledge that points had been gleaned at the expense of a team who just might trouble his own men's championship aspirations. Three goals in each of their three games in the last week, with just one conceded, is evidence that his men have recovered their strutting poise.

There was never any suggestion that David O'Leary would fulfil his pre-match ambition - announced, knowing him, with more than a touch of the Irishman's humour - "of kicking his [Ferguson's] butt". Indeed, the Leeds manager put the relative strengths of the sides in perspective when he spoke of returning to the club's training ground yesterday afternoon and casting an eye over his walking wounded to assess their chances of facing Barcelona in the Champions' League on Tuesday. "I've got 11 back there; even some of those here were not match-fit, and you don't come to Old Trafford to get match-fitness, but if I hadn't played them, we'd have had to ask for the match to be called off."

The best that can be said is that O'Leary's team, average age 21, can only have benefited from yesterday's experience. It will have awakened them to the realities of the Premiership at the elite level, without the destruction of their confidence that further goals might have brought about.

For that, they have several reasons for saying, "Here's to you, Mr Robinson," about their goalkeeper, still not 21 and having made only seven Premiership appearances. He deputised for the injured Nigel Martyn, and O'Leary's testament to the agile Paul was: "Eventually, I expect him to take over from Nigel and go on and play for England."

With the exception of rival supporters trading predictable and tasteless insults referring to Munich and Turkey, it was a particularly polite first half- hour. In fact, altogether too agreeable. It required Nicky Butt to raise the pulses with a venomous shot which swirled unpleasantly in front of Robinson. But the young goalkeeper reacted well to turn the ball round the post. From the resulting corner, Yorke cleared the bar. At that stage, the Leeds novices might have been deluded into wondering what the mystique surrounding their illustrious rivals was all about.

But then fate took a hand. Keane departed with a injured hamstring, which means he will miss the Anderlecht game along with Teddy Sheringham, to be replaced by Beckham. United were losing a wounded tiger but gaining a cunning wolf. Intriguingly, although Keane handed over his captain's armband to Phil Neville, it was Beckham who emerged with it after the break - the first time, according to Ferguson, he had captained the side.

More importantly, Beckham's appearance heralded the moment that the League leaders struck that familiar surging rhythm which can beguile the most assertive of teams. And Leeds were never remotely that here. Ferguson's team placed the result beyond their rivals with goals six minutes before and after half-time. First, Beckham picked out Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a sweet pass into space down the right, and when the Norwegian swept the ball at chest height into the visitors' area, Yorke ducked to head home. Robinson may have been slightly at fault, being somewhat hesitant, but it was his only hint of an error all morning.

After the interval, the Australian Jacob Burns foolishly brought down Solskjaer away from the ball. The free-kick was ideally positioned for a Beckham bender and he duly clouted the ball past Robinson, although it took a deflection.

Though Mark Viduka and Alan Smith toiled valiantly, and the young Welsh international midfielder Matthew Jones ferreted industriously, Leeds rarely met the expectations of their vocal supporters. In a game always highly charged, reflecting old enmities, Smith and Lee Bowyer were cautioned during a frantic period, but a third goal from United brought peace as Beckham crossed and in the ensuing mêlée, Jones appeared to divert the ball into his own net.

Wes Brown emerged as substitute, and gave a display which drew admiration from Ferguson, who compared his player and Leeds' Jonathon Woodgate: "The best two young centre-backs in the country," he opined. The manager might have added that Leeds have the best young team in the country. They have a way to go, though, before they mirror the success achieved with his class of the early Nineties.

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