Football: Defensive problems for O'Leary

Injuries threaten to wreck Leeds' hopes of European revival.
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SOMETIMES, AS Michael Schumacher could testify, fate appears hellbent on bloodying your nose. Leeds United, managerless and luckless in their Uefa Cup tie against Roma a fortnight ago, will try to overturn a 1-0 deficit in tonight's second leg at Elland Road without two pivotal players.

Lucas Radebe, their captain, and goalkeeper Nigel Martyn are the most important members of a defence which has conceded only one goal at home in the Premiership this season and both, barring remarkable recoveries, will miss tonight's match. Their absence could be crucial.

The emphasis will be on attack because Leeds have to score at least twice against the Italians but that will be to no avail if Roma prey on any weaknesses at the other end. The chances are Radebe (knee) and Martyn (ribs) will be missed at some point tonight against a team who are third in Serie A and whose 4-3-3 formation emphasises attack as the best form of defence.

"I won't rule them out, but they're very doubtful," David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, said of his injured duo. "For what Lucas is to this team we have to give him every chance because apart from being a tremendous player he's so positive. His problem is that he'll have two legs hanging off and he'll still want to play. I have to hold him back from training never mind matches."

Radebe will be the greater loss because the Leeds defence binds round his commanding presence. He was at fault for Roma's goal, missing a through pass that freed Marco Delvecchio, but that apart he had a tremendous night in the Olympic stadium, and was hugely influential in beating back the Italians after Leeds had been reduced to 10 men by Bruno Ribeiro's sending- off.

Leeds hit the post twice in that first leg, exposing Roma, who beat Udinese 4-0 on Saturday, as a team who are suspect in defence for all the splendour of their forward play. Francesco Totti is a gifted playmaker who hangs just behind Delvecchio but the Brazilians Cafu and Aldair were a disappointment both going forward and in the more important part of their job, defending.

Nevertheless O'Leary, who had to spend the first leg in the stands while serving a one-match suspension, was impressed. "They're a wonderful team Roma, and I fancied them to win this competition at the start of the season although I'd love to be proved wrong.

"They're made for this type of occasion. They were delighted they didn't concede a goal in Rome and, as we saw there, it needed only one mistake for them to punish us. They have talented people who will hit you on the break big time."

With that counter-punch in mind O'Leary will preach caution tonight even though the deficit has to be overturned. He recalled when Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield in 1989 to win the championship that people were urging the Gunners to attack recklessly when they reached half-time with an inadequate 0-0 scoreline. Instead the bolt remained locked at the back and a famous 2-0 victory was secured without which Fever Pitch might still be an idea in Nick Hornby's head.

"We will approach it the same way as we did in Rome," he said. "That is sensibly. We won't charge forward trying to get a goal and we mustn't panic if we don't score. The main thing is not to concede anything in the first 20 minutes."

A sweeper might be employed to diminish the prospects of an early fright although O'Leary used a back four in Rome. His choice will be between either the inexperienced Jonathan Woodgate or David Wetherall, who came on as a substitute against Derby on Saturday and did not distinguish himself, with either Martin Hiden or Gunnar Halle moving in from the flanks to form a central three with Robert Molenaar.

This may appear a number of options but in comparison to other English teams in Europe there is the slight sound of a spoon on the bottom of a barrel. It was this lack of alternatives that O'Leary addressed yesterday, envying the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal who can afford to rest the players if they become weary.

"I would have loved to have left some of the young players out on Saturday because they've had a lot of games," he said. "But we're not equipped for that. We need a bigger squad for these kind of competitions because if we do well against Roma we have a game on Sunday and then we're into the Worthington Cup again. It's never ending."

Does that mean his side are ill-equipped to win tonight? "We're not equipped to do well in everything," he replied.

Tonight's game will be a bonus, he said, for a young side who are still learning, but he would resist the temptation to urge his players to enjoy the occasion. "Don Howe did that once to take the heat out the situation when we were playing Liverpool at Wembley," he said. "And we were absolutely hammered. I went out to enjoy myself and Kenny Dalglish went out to play."