Less has been made of United's uncertain start than Newcastle's. After dropping points at home to Everton and Blackburn, however, they really needed to deliver a convincing performance against opponents who are expected to find the going tough at this level.
They were not surprised to find Derby fused with the energy to attack them from start to finish, as promoted teams tend to do when given early opportunity to claim a major scalp. But they have been this way before and it will concern them that they could not impose themselves as they had planned.
Had Beckham accepted an early invitation to relieve the anxiety that was obvious in their play, the night might have unfolded differently. But the chance, set up by Eric Cantona, was squandered by the youngster with only the goalkeeper to beat and Derby never again permitted them similar liberty.
United fell behind after 24 minutes to a goal of which they had ample forewarning. Twice in the first quarter of an hour, they gave away free- kicks within shooting range of Peter Schmeichel. Each time Aljosa Asanovic, Derby's playmaker from Croatia, struck the ball cleanly towards goal but each time the wall of United defenders held firm.
But when they conceded another, from a wider angle on the right, Schmeichel's cover failed him. From 25 yards, Jacob Laursen, the Danish wing-back, unleashed a ferocious drive which beat his compatriot all ends up.
United responded effectively. Ryan Giggs brought a finger-tip save from Russell Hoult, then cleverly laid the ball into the path of Beckham as his team-mate launched a run from midfield. In full flight, Beckham surprised Hoult with a shot from long range and the reward was a superb goal.
But this was as good as it got for United. Beckham was booked at the start of the second half - one of seven yellow cards in the match - and the brawl which threatened to erupt was indicative of the tension in the United camp.
Derby made few clear-cut chances but the pressure on the United goal was unceasing, certainly not the kind of exercise their manager, Alex Ferguson, wanted to go through with Juventus in the Champions' League only a week away.
"Derby played really well and it was a Cup final for them," Ferguson said. "But we are used to these matches and we have got to perform better. In the second half we were in second gear and we were fortunate to get the point."
Derby County (5-3-2): Hoult; Laursen, Rowett, Stimac, Carbon, C Powell; Dailly, Asanovic (Flynn, 87), D Powell; Willems (Simpson, 82), Sturridge (Gabbiadini, 87). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Parker.
Manchester United (5-3-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Pallister, May (Solskjaer, 73), Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Giggs; Cantona, Cruyff (Scholes, 73). Substitutes not used: McClair, Poborsky, Van der Gouw (gk).
Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).Reuse content