European Football: Leeds just one goal short in epic fightback: Stuttgart's precious away goal

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The Independent Online
Leeds United . . .4

VfB Stuttgart. . .1

(agg 4-4; Stuttgart win on away goals)

AN EPIC match, a heroic performance. One more goal and Leeds would have consigned Lazarus to history's inside page, but it was not to be. So near, yet so far.

One of the European Cup's great fightbacks did much to repair the image of English football abroad, but that 3-0 defeat in Germany had left Yorkshire's pride with just too much to do.

Just was the word. With the aggregate score level, Stuttgart were hanging on by their fingernails long before the end, dependent on Andreas Buck's away goal for the most precarious of passages into the second round.

To beat the German champions 4-1 and still go out is cruel indeed, but the harsh truth this morning is that the two teams who dominated the domestic game last season have both fallen at the first cross-channel hurdle against good, but scarcely intimidating opposition.

Unlike Manchester United the previous night, Leeds scored - and scored well. The end product, though, was the same. Disappointment and elimination.

'Sick to our stomachs' was how Howard Wilkinson put it. The Leeds manager praised his players' 'passion, quality and character', but acknowledged that the tie had been won and lost in the first leg.

He was right, of course. No English club have ever retrieved a three-goal deficit in European competition. In fairness, though, none have ever come closer, nor been more deserving of equality.

Leeds set about a daunting task with a rousing gung-ho assault on the Stuttgart goal, and might conceivably have levelled the aggregate in the first five minutes.

Gary McAllister, who had a storming first half, produced three bristling shots in that edge-of-the-seat opening, the best of which demanded a save of the highest order from Eike Immel.

The crowd's optimism, and German apprehension, was further fuelled when Scott Sellars began ploughing a productive furrow down the left and, after 17 minutes, the flame was applied to the blue touch paper, and a cracker of a tie was well and truly alight.

The spark took the form of a sweet left-foot volley from Gary Speed, whose fulminating finish did handsome justice to the precise header with which Eric Cantona laid off Gordon Strachan's lofted pass.

The danger, as Leeds knew only too well, was that Stuttgart would burgle a breakaway goal to put the tie beyond them. It nearly happened as early as the eighth minute, when Fritz Walter ran clear, but shot against John Lukic's legs. It did happen in the 32nd, when Buck was left with ridiculous time and space in which to score with an angled shot, from right to left.

To their credit, Leeds refused to be downhearted, and Chris Fairclough and McAllister were both too close for German comfort before a penalty made it 4-2 on aggregate, after 38 minutes.

Stuttgart's respect for Chapman's aerial prowess was evident when Guido Buchwald barged into the striker's back. McAllister was coolness personified from 12 yards.

It was Leeds and more Leeds. Cantona was tantalisingly close with back-to-back headers, Chapman nodded into the side-netting at close range. Marvellous stuff.

Their third goal was delayed until the 66th minute - desperately late. Cantona, the focus of everything, beat Gunther Schafer in the air to win Strachan's cross, then brought the ball down smartly before beating Immel with a deft lob.

Stuttgart were plunged into panic, and it was shades of '66 when Chapman and Slobodan Dubajic jumped together and the ball hit the underside of the crossbar and appeared to cross the line before bouncing out.

The Germans' reprieve was brief, their panic apparent when no one remembered to pick up Chapman at the near post, where he was left to head in Strachan's corner unopposed.

Strachan again. The Scot had rolled back the years to produce a dynamic performance, providing the final ball for each of his team's four goals.

Anything might have happened in the last 10 minutes. Unfortunately for Leeds, not enough did.

Christoph Daum, the Stuttgart coach, said: 'Leeds were lions out there. After that, we have more respect than ever for English football.'

To the winners the spoils, to the losers nothing but credit.

Leeds United: Lukic; Sellars, Dorigo, Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Strachan, Cantona, Chapman, McAllister, Speed.

VfB Stuttgart: Immel; Schafer, Frontzeck, Dubajic, Strunz, Buchwald, Buck, Sverrisson, Walter (Knup, 81), Gaudino (Simakic, 82), Kogl.

Referee: K Nielsen (Denmark).

(Photograph omitted)

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