O'Leary learns and yearns

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The Independent Football

The last time Leeds beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, Margaret Thatcher was just finding her range with the Prime Ministerial handbag and the Europe question was whether Bucks Fizz would win the Eurovision Song Contest. They missed out again yesterday but they rattled the champions. A win was tantalisingly close.

"Let's not be kidded by any smokescreen that may be put up about the refereeing or something," the Leeds manager, David O'Leary, said after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's late goal had denied Leeds once more. "We should have won the game."

It was a familiar sense of disappointment for O'Leary, whose team outplayed Manchester United two years ago at Old Trafford and emerged with a 2-0 defeat. Then the result seemed to provide evidence of Leeds' gaucheness, that they lacked an essential ingredient to challenge for the game's big prizes. They were too young and too unworldly. Yesterday they arrived as Premiership leaders and, judged by the same parameters, they endorsed the impression that they have allied maturity to the hunger to win something and will be serious contenders next May.

Particularly as Leeds began the game like pupils waiting to be given a lesson by the masters. The strength of their team this season has been a central core bookended by Rio Ferdinand and Mark Viduka but cemented by the midfield partnership of Eirik Bakke and Olivier Dacourt. For the first 20 minutes that duo chased shadows as Manchester United – perhaps goaded by Sir Alex Ferguson's assertion that Leeds are the most aggressive side in the Premiership – went at the upstarts like hungry dogs.

"We started very nervously and gave them too much respect," O'Leary said. "We didn't have the belief and I reminded them of that at half-time." By then the home side could have been two goals ahead but for two high-quality saves from Nigel Martyn and the post which got in the way of David Beckham's shot.

Even during the Mancunian ascendancy there were hints that Leeds could profit from uncertainty in the red shirts, however. Robbie Keane was asked to use his pace against the cultured but slow Laurent Blanc and a burst down the left gave Viduka a glimpse of a chance. After 27minutes the Australian striker had a full and unhindered view of an opportunity when the home defence went missing and Harry Kewell slipped in a pass behind Blanc and Co. Viduka's shot beat Fabien Barthez and appeared to have found the target until it became apparent the ball was in the side-netting.

It was a bad miss but one that Viduka would make amends for in the second half as Leeds finally shed their over- respect. The game appeared to heading towards a draw when Leeds withdrew Keane and brought on David Batty, but then Viduka got in front of the home defence and pushed the ball through Barthez's legs from a narrow angle.

Leeds, solid and durable, looked capable of breaking their dismal run here but they missed the chance to go for the jugular. "If I had to be super-critical about my players, we sat back after we got the goal and invited trouble," O'Leary said. "This is where we have to keep learning because we scored at the right time and should have kept at them, because I felt United were there for the taking. I thought we did poorly with their goal. We were sat so deep Solskjaer got a header in there. Manchester United's strength is going forward, not defending, and I thought we had the players to get at them."

Instead, with Leeds anxiously pinned in their own area, it was the United of Manchester who almost got the winner and would have done so but for an exceptional save from Martyn to deny Ruud van Nistelrooy's injury-time header and a lucky one when he caught the ball with his legs when Dominic Matteo struck from close range.

"It would have been an injustice if we had lost," O'Leary said. "Two years ago we came here and got mugged when we should have won. I don't want to be stepping on the coach at Old Trafford with everyone saying what a good side you are and we've got nothing. I want to come here and get results and we have done today."