Football: Leeds look to enhance street credibility

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The Independent Online
LEEDS UNITED go in search tonight of 'lost marbles', and a victory to kick-start their stalled defence of the championship.

Stuttgart, and the European Cup, may be the task in hand, but Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, says he is 'not a cup man', and is keeping one eye, at least, on matters domestic.

Wilkinson is dissatisfied with his team's indifferent start to the season, identifying their defensive frailty as his greatest cause for concern, and he is looking for a substantial improvement in the Neckar Stadium tonight.

Describing the first leg of this first-round tie as a test of Leeds's 'street credibility', he said: 'Whatever it is that has caused us to concede so many goals this season, this might be just what is needed to put all the marbles back in place. There's nothing like a challenge to focus the mind.'

Cup man or not, it is a challenge he relishes, pointing out, with some feeling, that 'there are no cheap victories to be had when you play the champions of Germany'. A goalless draw would be 'a good result', but he is setting his sights rather higher than that. Given the away-goals rule, 1-1 would be 'smashing', and victory 'terrific'.

Needless to say, he favours the terrific. 'I hope we can win, and I think we can, but we've lost two of our four away games this season, and we'll have to have our best heads on, and perform above the call of duty to do it.'

The post-Heysel ban has left English clubs at a disadvantage in Europe, and long gone are the days when Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa dominated the Champions' Cup, keeping it in the Football League family for six years in succession.

Wilkinson believes winning it is more difficult now - and not just because the knack was lost during the ostracism which followed that awful night in Brussels.

Another reason, he said, was what the Italians called the English disease - 'and they're not talking about bubonic plague'. What they did mean was 'too much football', or rather too many games.

Reminded that the fixture list was no less congested in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when England's champions were pre-eminent, Wilkinson said: 'What has changed is the pace at which the game is played. The physical demands are heavier now, and players need longer to recover from them.'

Unfamiliarity was another problem. 'I hope European experience is not too important, because not too many of my players have had any recently. Eight have played in Europe, but mostly in the dim and distant past.'

Anxious to be positive, Wilkinson turned the subject on its head, and sought to portray naivety as an advantage: 'Maybe it's better going in wide-eyed and reckless, and just getting on with it.'

He would prefer to take on the Continentals at their own game, playing with a sweeper and marking man for man, but was able to find no time to practise and perfect the system and, rather than go at it 'half-cock', as England had last summer, he would stick to 'tried and trusted' methods.

'Everybody abroad plays man to man, and consequently their players tend to be more comfortable in all areas than ours are. It is something we are going to have to come to terms with.'

Both managers were in cagey mood yesterday, each seeking to keep the other in the dark as long as possible by declining to announce a starting line-up.

Leeds are without Rod Wallace (hamstring), but Tony Dorigo has recovered from a stomach bug, and resumes at left-back.

Two options spring to mind. In a game in which he will seek to negate Stuttgart's superior technique with power running, Wilkinson might prefer David Rocastle to the ageing Gordon Strachan on the right side of midfield. There is also a case, in the away leg, for omitting the flair player, Eric Cantona, in favour of another runner - possibly Steve Hodge.

Dropping 'Ooh-Aah', mind, would probably see the perpetrator lynched by the 1,200 Leeds fans here, to whom the Frenchman is Giles, Lorimer and Gray reincarnate.

Stuttgart, whose defence of their title has been as unconvincing as Leeds's to date, await fitness tests on Gunther Schafer, Andreas Buck and Michael Frontzeck, a defender who was among Germany's substitutes for the final of the European Championship.

Having sold Matthias Sammer to Internazionale for pounds 4m, they are more heavily dependent than ever on Fritz Walter, whose 22 goals made him the Bundesliga's leading scorer last season.

Stuttgart (probable): Immel; Schneider, Frontzeck, Dubajic, Strehmel, Buchwald, Knup, Golke, Walter, Gaudino, Sverrisson.

Leeds United (probable): Lukic; Newsome, Whyte, Fairclough, Dorigo, Strachan, Batty, McAllister, Speed, Chapman, Cantona.

Referee: K Nielsen (Den).