United are devoid of glitter

Leeds United 3 Manchester United 1

Who could blame Alex Ferguson if he was a little low on the Christmas spirit yesterday? Indeed, it would be a surprise if he bothered with his turkey and trimmings at all. The way things are going he probably feared food poisoning.

In the space of eight days the Manchester United manager has seen his team's title credentials look as tatty as last year's tinsel. Two matches have been lost, five goals have been shipped and Newcastle United are so far ahead now the Tynesiders could lost at Old Trafford tomorrow evening almost with impunity.

Worse still, Ferguson is losing players to injury with almost every match. Steve Bruce is the latest to succumb, limping out of Elland Road with a hamstring strain that will keep him out of action, in his words, "for a long time". With Gary Pallister also disabled with back problems United's central defence is looking threadbare.

As indeed it was made to appear for much of this match. United, second in the Premiership but labouring, were cut to pieces by Leeds who, Ferguson admitted, could have won by far more. Now they must face the leaders tomorrow with a makeshift defence that might include the on loan French international defender from Bordeaux, William Prunier.

"It's something we'll have to look at," Ferguson said. "At least we've got three days to sort something out. Prunier has been allowed to go home to France for the weekend and will not be back until Tuesday. I know he played well for the reserves against Derby last week."

Whatever Ferguson comes up with it can only be an improvement on this match. He dropped David May, his best defender in the fiasco at Liverpool, and chose Paul Parker instead, a calculated risk that went wrong when the former England defender missed the ball and allowed Tony Yeboah a run at goal after 35 minutes.

Give the Ghanaian a fraction and opponents might as well start lining up for the kick-off and on this occasion he turned Denis Irwin inside out before chipping delicately ovet Peter Schmeichel. It was a masterful goal and effectively won the match.

That had been tilted towards Leeds anyway after five minutes when Nicky Butt's hand made contact with the ball and the referee awarded a penalty. It seemed the official might make contact with a Bruce uppercut, too, as the Manchester United captain went ballistic over the decision but fortunately Schmeichel intervened.

"There were 10 reasons at least to give a free-kick in that situation," Ferguson protested later, "attackers climbing on top of defenders etc, yet he gave a penalty kick. It was a surprising decision to say the least."

Even Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, was bemused. "I haven't got a clue why he awarded it," he said but, if the evidence of a crime was flimsy, the punishement was emphatic, Gary McAllister driving the ball into the top right hand corner.

Buoyed by that, Leeds played some delightful football that would have probably eclipsed United even if they had been at full strength.

Brian Deane hit the bar with a chip while Yeboah was through a second time only to be denied by Schmeichel.

As a consequence Leeds had to be content with just one more goal that was inspired by the best attacking influence on the pitch, Tomas Brolin. The Swede was a joy throughout - "I bought him to fulfil a certain function and he got nearer today," Wilkinson said - flicking and passing in a manner that has been absent at Elland Road since, dare one say it, Eric Cantona was sold.

Certainly there was plenty to ooh and ah about in Leeds 73rd minute goal, Brolin linking with Carlton Palmer on the right before dummying to shoot. As the United defenders flinched he instead chipped delicately to the penalty spot where Deane headed powerfully into the corner of the net.

It left Leeds supporters delerious and Mancunians refelecting on a haul of three points from a possible last 15, a sombre thought lifted only by Andy Cole's 30th minute goal, only his fourth this season. Nicky Butt dispossesed Gary Speed and passed to Cole who shot on the volley was crisp and low enough to beat Mark Beeney even though the ball passed by no more than a four feet from his toes.

The pounds 7m man was transformed by that and instead of a misfit he suddenly looked a striker of substance again. "The was a smell of goals about him," Ferguson said. "He had five strikes and each one was on target." For some reason the phrase "clutching at straws" came to mind.

Goals: McAllister (5 min, pen) 1-0; Cole (29) 1-1; Yeboah (35) 2-1; Deane (72) 3-1.

Bookings: Leeds United: Deane; Manchester United: Beckham.

Leeds United (4-3-1-2): Beeney; Kelly, Wetherall, Jobson, Dorigo; Palmer, McAllister, Speed; Brolin; Yeboah (Wallace, 86), Deane. Substitutes (not used): Radebe, Worthington.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce (P Neville, 79), Parker (May 74), Irwin; Butt, Keane, McClair, Beckham (Scholes, 74); Cantona; Cole.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Attendance: 39,801.

Man of the match: Brolin.

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