Keane wins battle of the old heads

Leeds United 0 Manchester United 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The managers strolled away arm in arm afterwards. A glass or two of decent red wine may have helped lubricate those strained throats later, you suspect, with Sir Alex Ferguson magnanimous in victory. For Peter Reid, it had been his first experience of this particular cross-Pennine confrontation. Whether he survives until their next League meeting, at Old Trafford on 21 February (there is also a small matter of a Carling Cup encounter on Tuesday week), must be doubtful despite "democracy" ruling at the beginning of the month when supporters voted to keep the manager in his chair.

Ferguson's team, operating without Ryan Giggs, who, according to Ferguson, had been "taken sick overnight" but should have recovered for Wednesday's Champions' League game at Ibrox, did not even have to perform at anything like their optimum. It was 10 minutes from the end of one of the most low-key renewals of this normally volatile fixture when United's captain, Roy Keane, headed home Gary Neville's beautifully-flighted cross. But there were few doubts about the destination of the points.

Leeds' fans have been finding their team as expensive to follow at home as a spendthrift with a high-limit Barclaycard. But by dropping Alan Smith into midfield, Leeds frustrated their opponents sufficiently to offer hope that they could glean a draw. That optimism was enhanced by sound performances in the home rearguard by Zoumana Camara and Dominic Matteo.

However, there was simply no attacking panache, no sense of purpose until the latter stages. Even then goalkeeper Tim Howard was never troubled. Mark Viduka, replaced by Michael Bridges in the second period, epitomised Leeds' dearth of adventure with an insipid display.

Rio Ferdinand remembered to turn up for this particular lunchtime appointment. The former Leeds defender need scarcely have bothered, given the paucity of Leeds' assaults. As for the Elland Road "welcome" he had been promised, his hide is hard enough to deal with a few jeers and chants of "Rio is a smackhead". Nevertheless, he earned a tribute from his manager, who insisted: "Rio was outstanding. He showed great character." Ferguson added that he had never considered omitting the England man, who still awaits the Football Association's response to his failure to take a drug test last month.

Youth was given its chance here, with the average age of the four wide midfielders - the visitors' Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher and Leeds' James Milner and Jermaine Pennant, whose loan spell from Arsenal finished with this game - only a touch over 18. Ronaldo is an enigma. With the ball at his feet, the Portuguese player stings like a bee. The problem is when challenged for it, he tends to fold like a butterfly. When Ronaldo tumbled expectantly in the first half under Gary Kelly's challenge in the area, the referee Graham Poll gave him a yellow rather than the penalty he was claiming. A little later, the winger was again sent sprawling after meeting the challenge of David Batty who was cautioned, Poll gesturing that an elbow had been employed, although it was a pretty innocuous offence. "I thought the referee handled it very well," remarked Reid drily when asked for his view on Ronaldo.

Batty, who was never considered for selection under the Terry Venables regime, exhibited a desire and reading of the game that belied his 35 years. He was opposed by Roy Keane, nearing 33. Together, they do not come any more combative or committed to their respective causes. "I thought he was tremendous today against Keane and [Paul] Scholes, with his tackles, interceptions and the way he broke up plays," enthused Reid of his former England midfielder.

For much of the first half it was far too sedate and gentlemanly. Mikaël Silvestre threaded a splendid ball through to Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was away on goal, but fell under the attention of Kelly. Mr Poll was not impressed. The Dutchman was also narrowly wide with a header from a Ronaldo free-kick, while Keane drove straight at the goalkeeper Paul Robinson.

After the interval, a Scholes volley was beaten away by Robinson and Ronaldo just cleared the bar with a dipping effort. In between, an extravagant back-flick by Viduka initiated an excellent Leeds move, but Penant could not profit.

Ferguson brought on Diego Forlan, who dispatched a venomous effort over the woodwork. Leeds clearly felt they had drawn the worst of the visitors' fire, only for the substitute Lamine Sakho to lose the ball, Gary Neville to cross and Keane to plunder the winner. It could have been worse for the hosts, a Van Nistelrooy free-kick on the edge of the area having to be cleared off the line by Salomon Olembe. In added time, Scholes struck the bar.

It left Ferguson in ebullient mood. "They [Leeds] may look back and say they deserved more," he reflected. "But we had the major share of the game and made chances that mattered." You could not disagree.

The Scot's own next appointment is an FA misconduct hearing in London tomorrow following events at St James's Park. Then the reopening of football's Anglo-Scottish rivalries at Ibrox. Meanwhile Reid's task does not get any easier. Just a small matter of Liverpool and Arsenal in the League to contemplate, with Manchester United to face again, the meat of the sandwich.

Tasty. Very tasty.

Leeds United 0 Manchester United 1
Keane 81

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 40,153