Football: Leeds on a roll and closing in on Europe

Sheffield Wednesday 0 Leeds United 2 Hasselbaink 4, Hopkin 73 Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 28,142
Click to follow
IT MAY be a team game but goals win matches and rarely can the outcome of a hard-fought Yorkshire derby have turned so squarely on the quality of the team's respective strikers.

Leeds cruised to a fifth consecutive victory that keeps them firmly on course for a place in Europe, not because they created more chances than Wednesday but because they produced two excellent strikes, while their opponents merely showed how much they miss the finishing flair of their suspended Italian striker Benito Carbone.

It did Leeds no harm to score the early goal, although they were a little fortunate to be awarded a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area when the Wednesday captain, Peter Atherton, was adjudged to have fouled Harry Kewell. What followed was a well-oiled training ground manoeuvre that worked perfectly.

Ian Harte tapped the ball to David Hopkin, who laid it into the path of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and the Dutch striker struck it firmly through the defensive wall and in off the near post after only four minutes for his 15th goal of the season.

But Wednesday had already wasted one good chance when Andy Booth failed to find the target with a free header, and continued to do so.

There were times when the sides competed to throw good chances away. Booth guided another header off target and Carbone's replacement, Richie Humphreys, grazed an upright with a drive after a neat turn on the edge of the box.

Leeds were equally wayward. Kewell twice set up the teenage striker Alan Smith but his long legs would not stretch far enough to reach a ball rolling across an open goal and was then denied by Wednesday goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek's timely interception as he raced unchallenged into the area.

The replacement of Humphreys by the substitute Junior Agogo did little to sharpen Wednesday's attack and Leeds seemed to be content to sit on their slim lead when Hasselbaink released Hopkin with an incisive ball from the centre circle.

The midfielder's first shot was blocked by Srnicek but he chased the rebound to the byline and, from a tight angle, squeezed it across the face of goal to trickle in at the far post.

It was the sort of perseverance Wednesday's strikers so clearly lacked, as their manager Danny Wilson conceded: "We never looked like scoring. This was our worst performance of the season. We never competed with them at all."

The Leeds manager David O'Leary said: "We were worthy winners without playing fantastic, although I would have liked us to take more of our chances."

They almost did. Only a fine save by Srnicek from Hasselbaink in the final minute spared Wednesday a second consecutive 3-0 defeat.

Until recently, they seemed capable of avoiding their annual flirtation with relegation, but unless they can augment Carbone's one-man band they may soon be looking over their shoulders again.