Football: Leeds move forward to widen battle front

Click to follow
NORWICH CITY may be back on top of the Premier League, but they will be uncomfortably aware this morning that the phoney war is over. The big battalions are mobilised, and moving up.

Arsenal, winners again, at the expense of sad, stricken Nottingham Forest, are at last showing signs of justifying their pre-season favouritism. Leeds United, too, are getting their act together, and unlikely to give up the title without a better fight than their defence so far.

Leeds' greatest handicap is having to campaign on so many fronts. Apart from the championship, they have the considerable distraction of the European Cup, not to mention the Coca-Cola Cup, and there is the FA Cup still to come.

Matters European are next on their crowded agenda, Saturday's scrap for local supremacy with Sheffield United having provided ideal preparation for the match they are billing as the 'battle of Britain'.

Howard Wilkinson was describing the 3-1 victory at home to United when he spoke of a 'tough, uncompromising battle', but he might have been previewing Leeds' visit to Ibrox on Wednesday in the second round of the European Cup.

Rangers will be just as committed as 'Harry' Bassett's Allsorts were - and stronger in all departments. It will be a passionate, potentially explosive tie, and we must hope for a better referee than Ray Lewis, who booked just about everything that moved on Saturday, and yet was never really on top of the job. The same could not be said of Leeds. If they had one eye on Wednesday, you would not have guessed. They matched United's industry and aggression, and were deserved winners - the scoreline accurately reflected the balance of play.

Their form, and their confidence, must make them favourites to overcome the Scottish champions, although the defence on which last season's success was founded continues to give cause for concern.

Clean sheets have been few and far between, and Archie Knox, Rangers' assistant manager, was present to note the failure to pick up Paul Beesley when the centre- half strode up to head in John Gannon's corner.

Richard Gough will cause havoc if he is allowed that sort of freedom at set-pieces. Wilkinson, naturally, will be at pains to ensure that he is not.

Knox will also report back on Leeds' lack of a specialist right- back, and Rangers can be expected to play on Chris Fairclough's insecurity. He is coping rather better than Jon Newsome did as Mel Sterland's understudy, but still looks like a central defender playing out of position, which, of course, is precisely what he is.

On the credit side, the Leeds midfield is a match for any just now, with David Batty prodigiously effective in the ferret's role, Gordon Strachan in irridescent form and Gary Speed the personification of perpetual motion.

When Wilkinson asked, before Saturday's game, whether any of his players felt they might benefit from dropping out, and resting before Ibrox, there were no takers, and their single-minded pursuit of the points left their manager praising a job well done.

Leeds' assertive approach should have been rewarded as early as the ninth minute, when Lee Chapman was wastefully wide with a far-post header. It was an uncharacteristic miss, and amends were duly made when a nod of that prolific forehead brought Chapman's ninth goal of the season, courtesy of Eric Cantona's cross from deep on the left.

The bit firmly between their teeth, Leeds might have put the game beyond United's reach through Speed, Strachan, Batty and Cantona. Instead, Beesley brought the sides level, and it was not until the last 16 minutes that Speed, with a thumping shot, and Chris Whyte, with a close-range header, were able to do justice to the champions' clear superiority.

Mr Lewis, apparently intent on reminding us of his address, booked Cantona, for an awful assault on Tom Cowan, along with United's Brian Deane, Mitch Ward, Adrian Littlejohn and Carl Bradshaw, and at one stage appeared to be cautioning a linesman, for missing an offside.

A flashy, fussy performance was rendered all the more irritating by his failure to spot an obvious 'professional foul' when Fairclough halted Littlejohn's progress on the edge of the penalty area by tugging at his shirt.

Wilkinson was pleased that his team had passed what he called 'a test of our resilience and character'. He had not had the chance to watch Rangers, but expected Wednesday's match to be 'much the same'. It would be 'a typical British Cup tie, rather than a typical European Cup tie,' he said. 'It's England v Scotland, with all the attendant hype, and everyone will want to play. The game will turn people on.'

Was there a danger that the hostile, all-Scottish crowd might turn his team off? 'It's possible, but I don't think so. They say Ibrox will be intimidating, but I'd rather be playing there than Hartlepool.' Carl Shutt would be happy just to get a game - anywhere. The hero of Barcelona was allowed just six minutes on Saturday (he entered to a standing ovation) and says he has no desire to become a 'super sub'.

He may be denied even that limited role if Rod Wallace passes a fitness test in the reserves today.

Goals: Chapman (35), 1-0; Beesley (54), 1-1; Speed (74), 2-1; Whyte (78), 3-1.

Leeds United: Lukic; Newsome, Dorigo, Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Strachan, Cantona (Shutt, 84), Chapman, McAllister, Speed. Substitutes not used: Day (gk), Sellars.

Sheffield United: Kelly; Ward, Cowan, Gannon, Gayle, Beesley, Bradshaw, Rogers, Littlejohn (Bryson, 73), Deane, Cork. Substitutes not used: Tracey (gk), Hartfield.

Referee: R Lewis (Great Bookham).