Kinkladze pulls the strings to perfection

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The Independent Online

Leeds United 0 Manchester City 1

Swirling clouds of fog made Elland Road resemble the set of a low-rent horror movie. Amid the gloom, conjuring the kind of class that Manchester City supporters feared lost in the mists of time, Georgi Kinkladze glowed like a neon sign.

With the exception of a vociferous Mancunian minority, the crowd came expecting great things from a Ghanaian and a Swede. Instead they saw Georgia's gift to the Premiership, small but perfectly in form, expose Leeds's leaden rigidity and inspire City to a fourth win in five unbeaten matches.

Kinkladze's summer transfer from Dynamo Tbilisi, for pounds 2m that no one thought City had, raised more eyebrows than hopes at Maine Road. The revelation that he was bought on the say-so of their chairman, Francis Lee, who had seen him only on video, cemented the image of Alan Ball as a puppet manager. Now that the 22-year-old midfielder is pulling the strings, perceptions are changing.

The cry of "Alan Ball's a football genius", followed on Saturday by the marvellously tongue- in-cheek "We're gonna win the League", was first heard during City's 6-0 surrender to Liverpool in late October. It appeared then to be classic gallows humour. That afternoon at Anfield has come to represent a watershed for both clubs, if not as either could have anticipated.

"After that defeat we went back and were brutally honest with each other," Ball said. "Since then we've let in just one goal, a penalty at Sheffield, which is testimony to people working hard as a group. But while it's all about teamwork, Kinkladze was a bit special. He's an immense talent."

Why, even Howard Wilkinson, who gave Juninho grudging praise on his debut ("He's small, he's Brazilian, etc"), acknowledged the qualities of Leeds's Strachanesque tormentor: "Quick feet, good vision, and when he goes past a defender he's got a pass at the end of it". The best was a scooped delivery, the sort of manoeuvre for which golfers require a sand wedge, that almost helped City take a deserved first-half lead.

By the time they did score, Leeds were so concerned about Kinkladze that two men went with him, leaving Steve Lomas free to cross for Gerry Creaney to head in. Uwe Rosler had already hit the crossbar, while Niall Quinn, possibly the only person who backheels the ball more than Eric Cantona, nearly flicked an audacious second.

Leeds, by their manager's admission, gave a "desperate" display. Seldom did they so much as try to get behind City's defence, preferring to hump crosses in from 40 yards. Wilkinson bemoaned this as "hit-and-hope", yet the high ball to Brian Deane on the left wing - what might be dubbed the Ian Ormondroyd Plan - was used so repetitively that it must have been sanctioned by him.

Tomas Brolin began with a breathtaking pass to Tony Yeboah, but tired in the second half and may need as long as Kinkladze to adjust to the English tempo. Leeds' needs are so pressing that it is doubtful whether he will be allowed a settling-in period, especially with Yeboah away at the African Nations' Cup for as much as six weeks in the New Year.

Ball, meanwhile, was looking ahead only as far as next weekend, when Kinkladze meets Juninho. "There won't be a cigarette paper between them," he predicted, the weekly tirade against unfair referees and malign fate having given way to pride and a sense of vindication. "I just wish Georgi was English - though mind you," he added, doubtless with Matt Le Tissier in mind, "he might not get picked."

Goal: Creaney (60) 0-1.

Leeds United (4-3-3): Lukic; Kelly, Wetherall, Jobson, Dorigo; Ford (Pemberton, 86), McAllister, Palmer; Yeboah, Brolin (Whelan, 70), Deane. Substitute not used: Worthington.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Immel; I Brightwell, Symons, Curle, Edghill (Creaney, 43); Summerbee, Flitcroft, Lomas, Kinkladze; Quinn, Rosler. Substitutes not used: Kernaghan, Coton (gk).

Referee: P Alcock (Redhill).

Bookings: Leeds: Deane, Jobson, Ford. City: Lomas, Curle, Flitcroft.

Man of the match: Kinkladze.

Attendance: 33,249.