Nerves frayed as Uniteds take a break

Phil Shaw looks forward to an intriguing and tense run-in for the Premiership title
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The Independent Online
Maybe, given that the new denim-style away shirt was the talk of Tyneside, it was destined to be a night for the status quo. The latest, identical wins for Manchester United and Newcastle not only left the championship equation unaltered, but revealed nerves in the rival camps to be as frayed as a battered pair of jeans.

In theory, a 10-day break for international week allows both contenders to summon their strength for the eight-day period that should decide the title. In practice, the hiatus may merely tighten the mental mangle by leaving the two Uniteds to mull over the possibilities, among which a play-off ranks ever more highly.

Kevin Keegan admitted that Newcastle were feeling the heat after the 1-0 defeat of Southampton, while Alex Ferguson's remarks after Manchester United's close shave against 10-man Leeds suggested his team were not the only ones showing the strain.

As Keegan confirmed, psychology is a major factor at this stage. "That's why the six inches between the ears are important. We guts it out again, though I have to say that David Batty again showed that he doesn't seem to be feeling any pressure. He's done it all before, and I honestly don't think we'd have held in there without him.''

On a night when even Peter Beardsley could not master the tension, Batty's confident, economical passing proved he has more to offer than a pit-bull presence.

Ferguson, likewise, was struggling to explain a spirited show by Batty's old colleagues, asking why Leeds only played to their potential against his side. They should be in the top six, he argued, and were "cheating the manager" by not being so.

This cocktail of complaint, compliment and paranoia was probably designed to embarrass Leeds into similar commitment at home to Newcastle a week on Monday. Manchester United could be six points clear again by then, provided they beat Nottingham Forest the day before.

Fresh intrigue, such as the likely return of Tony Yeboah and the Geordie solidarity of Forest's Frank Clark and Steve Stone, will emerge in the interim. But, to judge by Wednesday, the tussle will go to the last kick of the regular season and possibly beyond.

It was tit-for-tat stuff, right down to Keegan's relief that Manchester United did not pile on the goals after Leeds had to hand Lucas Radebe the goalkeeper's jersey, and Ferguson's satisfaction on hearing Beardsley had missed a penalty.

"Nothing's changed, really," the Newcastle manager said as the bookies retained Manchester United as 4-9 favourites and Newcastle at 13-8. "The onus is still on us. We've got the extra game but only one of our three is at home. If you balanced it up on a set of scales, it would stand even.''

And if it all stands even at the final whistle on 5 May, the play-off will be a reality. Keegan laughed off the prospect, saying: "I won't be there. I'll be on my holidays. I'm off to Marbella with Alex. We'll have a game of golf to decide it.''