The superstitious will point to the shirts, the realists the card. Either way, the colour red signified go for Manchester United last night as they put their championship challenge back on course at Old Trafford.
The red card was given to Mark Beeney, the Leeds United goalkeeper, for handling outside his area after 17 minutes. Although Lucas Radebe, his makeshift replacement, kept like the goalkeeper he once was, the numbers game finally caught 10-man Leeds out.
There were 18 minutes left and Old Trafford was tingling with tension when Leeds found themselves a man short on the right flank. Roy Keane took advantage - and Manchester United remain three points clear at the top of the Premiership.
They were given a further bonus with the successful return to action of Gary Pallister, who played his first match for nine games. "I was pleased with his performance," said Alex Ferguson, "he was superb." On the debit side Steve Bruce suffered a recurrence of his hamstring problem and may be out for the rest of the season - including, said Ferguson, the FA Cup final.
Judged on chances created, Manchester United deserved their win but both their football and composure were second best to Leeds. Even before Beeney was dismissed Leeds had looked the better side, their confident passing belying a record of nine defeats in 12 League games.
It was a performance which must have evoked mixed feelings in Howard Wilkinson. The Leeds manager was typically obtuse in considering this but Ferguson was more forthright. "He does not deserve his players to play like that tonight. If they did that every game, they would be top six - why do they only do it against Manchester United? I can accept any club coming to this place and trying their hardest if they are doing it every week - but I won't accept that. No wonder managers get sacked. He [Wilkinson] has done a lot for that club, he deserves better."
Wilkinson did say that, after Saturday's 4-1 defeat at Chelsea: "I told my players what I thought of them." He also made four changes, the absence of Tony Yeboah was enforced, that of goalkeeper John Lukic deliberate.
Initially it seemed a good switch as Beeney denied Eric Cantona within 10 seconds. The save was important as it enabled Leeds to settle. Carlton Palmer, the game's best player, took control of midfield and, after eight minutes, they would had scored had not Pallister blocked Brian Deane's header on the line.
Nine minutes later the game changed. Beeney, having just made a flying save from Keane, misjudged the bounce of a through ball from Bruce and handled outside his area. It was the last act of the game for both of them. Bruce hobbled off in pain, Beeney stalked off in anger. Wilkinson said the dismissal was wrong as it was not a scoring opportunity but, with Andy Cole running on to the ball, the referee, Keith Cooper, had little choice.
The South African made some genuine saves, notably from Brian McClair after 37 minutes, but he was finally beaten when a Paul Scholes shot rebounded to Keane. He had Sharpe spare to the left and an exposed Kelly in front. Keane shaped to pass, the dummy was bought, and he used the space and time to drive low inside the left-hand post.
Old Trafford, which had been been given a series of scares by Andy Gray's impressive long-range shooting, exploded with a roar of relief. Cantona later hit the bar, but a second goal would have been unjust.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce (May, 17), Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, McClair (Scholes, h-t), Giggs; Cantona; Cole (Sharpe, 71).
Leeds United (4-5-1): Beeney; Kelly, Wetherall, Beesley, Worthington; Gray (Tinkler, 83), Ford (Radebe, 17), Palmer, McAllister, Speed; Deane (Masinga, 84).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).
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