Manchester United against Leeds United was one of the games of the season. Just not this meeting between historic rivals. If repeats of December’s 6-2 win for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can fill out the television schedules for years to come, the subsequent stalemate was less dramatic.
The significance lay in the backdrop and the consequences, rather than the football. United supporters paid for a plane to fly over Elland Road, displaying a message: “£2 billion stolen, Glazers out.”
They may not get their wish; Solskjaer denied he and his players had seen it. On the field, the ultimate winners, perhaps, were Manchester City, whose lead at the summit was only trimmed to 10 points; two more wins will make them champions.
United missed the opportunity to apply a little pressure and now the title could be settled next weekend. “A draw is disappointing because we wanted to put pressure on City,” said Solskjaer. “This is two points dropped that makes them very safe.”
A goalless game preserved two unbeaten records: Manchester United’s on the road all season – “a good achievement,” smiled Solskjaer – and Leeds United’s at home to the so-called 'big six'.
It is evidence of obduracy and, while there have been stunning scorelines in some of their matches, 0-0 draws with Arsenal, Chelsea and now United are examples that entertainers can also display defensive resolve.
Pascal Struijk started the season as a largely untried understudy but deputised adeptly for the suspended captain Liam Cooper. Illan Meslier, who had conceded six times at Old Trafford, enjoyed a cathartic clean sheet that featured a brilliant save from Marcus Rashford. Each feels proof that Marcelo Bielsa can be justified in trusting youth.
“The team made a massive effort,” said Bielsa. “We defended well. The dominance came more from them than from us.”
But Manchester United were below their best. Bruno Fernandes’ form has slipped in the last couple of months, Daniel James may have been a horses-for-courses choice after excelling in their December meeting but did not have the same impact and Mason Greenwood was on the fringes of the game.
Solskjaer’s preference for two defensive midfielders can both offer solidity and limit creativity and, while Fred produced one of his most incisive passes before Greenwood shot at Meslier, the decision to bench Paul Pogba came at a cost.
Solskjaer delayed the introductions of the Frenchman and Edinson Cavani as thoughts seemed to be turning to Thursday’s semi-final against Roma. “The Europa League disappointment last season still sticks in their minds and hearts,” said Solskjaer.
He had overwhelmed Leeds in December by selecting a side with more running power. He approached the rematch with a similar plan. “Leeds can steamroller teams with their fitness,” Solskjaer rationalised.
“We won 6-2 last time but had 40 percent of possession. In the second half today we had 60 percent. We looked like strong athletes.”
He had a ploy of aiming long balls over the Leeds defence for Marcus Rashford to meet and, when Victor Lindelof lofted a pass, Rashford shot wide. Luke Ayling was cautioned for halting Rashford illegally; at times, though, he could not get close enough to foul him.
United’s reliance on Rashford was apparent again when he struck a swerving free kick in the style of Cristiano Ronaldo; Meslier made a fantastic flying save. While Fernandes arrowed a shot wide after Aaron Wan-Bissaka delivered a low cross, there were few other alarms. “We just didn’t have the moment,” Solskjaer admitted. “We missed a little bit of spark to win the game.”
So did Leeds. Jack Harrison’s cross hit Luke Shaw’s arm and the defender survived a VAR check for a penalty but the closest they came was via a deflection, Helder Costa’s shot clipping Wan-Bissaka and landing on the roof of the net. “It was difficult for us to attack,” Bielsa said. But they rendered it difficult for the other United.