Smith exposes the title flaws

Manchester United 1 Leeds United 1
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson, the reputed master of mind games, is going to need all his mental powers if he is to persuade his players they can revive their challenge for the Premiership title. The great man might also have a few words for himself too.

The Manchester United manager gambled on fielding a weakened side and was repaid by them failing to beat a Leeds United who had entered the game with estimates of their chances akin to cannon fodder. With Arsenal defeating Chelsea, it means Ferguson's team are now seven points adrift in second place.

This came a day after Ferguson had wondered out loud whether the need to protect an unbeaten Premiership run would debilitate Arsenal. The answer yesterday was a resounding "no", and the pressure is now on the champions, who have squandered five points in their last two home Premiership games. One point ahead of the rest just four League games ago when Rio Ferdinand began his suspension, they can afford no lapses now or Arsenal will canter off into the distance.

Given the need to stay on the Gunners' shoulders, other questions that came to mind were why Ferguson changed his team and why he adopted the tactics he did. Louis Saha was injured in training on Friday and was out but Roy Keane and Ronaldo were rested and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made it only to the bench.

Those decisions might be justified in the light of Wednesday's Champions' League match in Porto, but a line-up that had the out-of-touch Kleberson as the support striker to Ruud van Nistelrooy rather than Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs, was less easy to fathom.

Add an injury to Mikaël Silvestre, who twisted his knee and ankle in a tackle with Alan Smith to put even greater strain on Ferguson's depleted defensive resources, and it was difficult to imagine a much more disappointing day for Old Trafford.

"We had a few chances, but we didn't play well," Ferguson said. "We looked off colour and not sharp. Twelve players were away on international duty during the week and maybe that took its toll." Which is not to disparage Leeds' performance, and Ferguson acknowledged the visitors were worthy of a draw. They arrived at the Theatre of Dreams in financial disarray, without the suspended Paul Robinson and Mark Viduka, and with an 18-year-old goalkeeper, Scott Carson, making his debut. But with centre-backs, Stephen Caldwell and Dominic Matteo, in magnificent form, they smothered the red hordes even though they fell behind to Paul Scholes' 64th-minute goal. Alan Smith's equaliser three minutes later was the least they deserved for their fortitude.

"This is a difficult place to come to," Eddie Gray, their caretaker manager, said, "and what pleased me was that we came back after going a goal down. It was a very good point for us." It might prove a valuable draw, too, if Leeds manage to scrap their way out of the bottom three.

Even so, Gray would have been happy to go in level at half-time because the home side might have been two ahead on another day. Their first escape came after six minutes when Giggs' corner sailed over the Leeds defenders to Silvestre whose scuffed shot would have found the corner of the net had it not been for the combined barrier of Gary Kelly and Caldwell.

Their second, 13 minutes later, was a degree closer because Giggs was halted only by a post when he turned on Scholes' pass and shot low to Carson's left. It was a close call, but a typical one, because Manchester United managed only five shots on target and 19 astray.

It was with a growing frustration that Ferguson produced his trump card by bringing on Keane just before the hour and he was rewarded almost immediately when the home side took the lead. Gary Neville passed low from the right and although Carson did well to get a touch, it bounced invitingly and Scholes, the arch pickpocket, swooped on the rebound from mugging range.

The scene was set for a relatively comfortable stroll in the final 25 minutes but Leeds disrupted the garden party with a goal of their own. Smith had done splendidly as a lone foil, but on this occasion he was joined by colleagues, and when Didier Domi crossed from the left, the England striker rose to head emphatically past Tim Howard.

Cue a characteristic home surge, except this one lacked the conviction of the red sea that usually swamps opponents. Cross after cross landed in the Leeds area but with Matteo and Carson dominant there was only one real chance and Van Nistelrooy ballooned it over with four minutes to go.

"It's a big mountain to climb now," Ferguson said of the championship race, "but it's achievable. It's amazing what this side can do when they get in their stride." The important word in that sentence is "when".

Manchester United 1
Scholes 64

Leeds United 1
Smith 67

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 67,744