O'Leary left with little to build on

FA Premiership: Leeds' form gives cause for concern with trip to Barcelona just days away
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? Leeds United, that is. Though ravaged by injuries, Leeds bore little resemblance to the vibrant side which brought such youthful arrogance to the Championship title race for so much of last season. All that was left at Highfield Road yesterday was the industry, the petulance and the defensive solidity.

Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? Leeds United, that is. Though ravaged by injuries, Leeds bore little resemblance to the vibrant side which brought such youthful arrogance to the Championship title race for so much of last season. All that was left at Highfield Road yesterday was the industry, the petulance and the defensive solidity.

Only once did Leeds produce the sort of incisive passing move which was second nature to them. Midway through the second half, Lee Bowyer latched on to a diagonal pass by Darren Huckerby and streaked through the Coventry defence before his left-foot shot struck the laces of Magnus Hedman's right boot. That was the good bit. The rest was shocking. If the scouts from Barcelona and Milan bothered to stay to the end, they deserve the same marks for endurance as the players.

"We can play better and we can pass the ball better," said David O'Leary, the Leeds manager. They will have to if they are to survive against Rivaldo and Co in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night.

Not that Coventry provided much in the way of preparation for a steamy night in Catalonia. Unusually for them, they went out to spoil and did so with barely a nod to style, despite the neat touches of Moustapha Hadji.

The result was a scrappy stalemate shot through with fear, petty feuds, poor passing, four bookings and a desperate shortage of class or coherence. Only Alan Smith, alert and probing, rose above the mundane, while Coventry manager Gordon Strachan's praise for the worthy but desperately prosaic work of Cedric Roussel at the front for the Sky Blues spoke volumes for the quality of the fare on offer.

The Belgian was the sort of bustling front man Leeds lacked in the absence of Mark Viduka, on Olympic duty for Australia, notably when Jason Wilcox came off the bench - he has recovered from a lengthy injury - to lend some width to their attack. Three times his trademark low crosses went begging for conversion.

O'Leary's downbeat assessment of Leeds' chances in the first phase of the Champions' League rang truer than some of his deliberately low-key monologues last season (and much truer than his disingenuous claims for a penalty when Youssef Chippo upended Huckerby). Arsenal, O'Leary pointed out, had yet to progress beyond the first league stage of the Champions' League, so how could Leeds manage it against Barcelona and Milan? "I thought getting out of the first phase would be success for us. To do so with the injuries we have now would be an unbelievable achievement," he added. Like yesterday, he had a point.

Strachan's problems, never well concealed, are rather closer to home, in every sense. Last season 12 wins at home and none away; this season one draw at home and two back-to-back victories away. Crazy game, this football. No wonder Coventry drive their manager a step nearer the funny farm with every passing match. "I can give you reasons for the reversal if you want," he said. "I can tell you lies. I tried three strikers, maybe we'll try four next time."

Leeds were one of the few teams to breach Fortress Highfield last year, but Coventry were in the middle of their cavalier - eight up, two back - period then and anyone hoping for a repeat of that seven-goal epic must have been sorely disappointed by the prevailing sterility of the stalemate. Leeds, as their manager claimed, probably deserved to take the points. Of three clear chances, they had two, one in each half but, in truth, it was a game that did not warrant a victor.

Had Michael Bridges found the direction to go with the elevation when Magnus Hedman advanced on him late in the first half, Leeds' strangely brittle confidence might have been lifted, while a sweeping passing movement from left to right, with the ball shuttled quickly between Stephen McPhail, Darren Huckerby and finally Bowyer,almost brought them a breakthrough.

Mostly, Leeds remained disjointed: at one moment Bridges was surrounded by five Coventry players on the right touchline with no help within 30 yards; an instant later a stuttering move ended with a hopeful punt to the far post where Hedman collected comfortably under no challenge at all.

A left-foot volley by McPhail flew fractionally over Hedman's crossbar and signalled a brief glimpse of the old Leeds. Coventry's best chance fell to John Eustace in the 79th minute. From a rare Coventry corner Carlton Palmer headed back, Paul Williams headed on, but Eustace blasted over on the turn from a mere five yards.

Leeds could not be faulted for effort but with Smith dropping deeper and deeper in search of some decent ball and Bridges occupied down the right, the attack lacked any cutting edge. The plus, said O'Leary, was that his side picked up no more injuries. The minuses might be more glaringly revealed in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night.

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