Football: Leeds' strike ability scrutinised

Leeds United 2 Sunderland 1
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The Independent Online
JUST AS the Premiership has learned to its cost not to mistake niceness for naivety when assessing David O'Leary's qualities, so an expectant Elland Road crowd is finding out the hard way that the Leeds manager's attempts to portray his team as youthful innocents no longer fools anyone.

Sunderland, like Derby on the opening day, paid O'Leary's so-called "Babies" the compliment of setting out to frustrate them. By flooding midfield and pulling everyone except Kevin Phillips behind the ball, they sought not only to nullify Leeds' advantage in pace and skill but also to avoid the kind of chasing they suffered at Chelsea. Had they not played with 10 men for 47 minutes following the dismissal of Alex Rae, they might even have exceeded that limited ambition.

O'Leary argued, justifiably, that Leeds, who had just fallen behind when Rae committed his second rash challenge on Lee Bowyer in three minutes, won comfortably. But victory covers a multitude of sins, or at least grey areas, and there was something unconvincing about their attacking, certainly before Sunderland were depleted.

The likes of Darren Huckerby and Michael Bridges may well create more danger away from home. Meanwhile, tonight's visit of Liverpool, who earned a 0-0 draw with stifling tactics in the equivalent fixture last April, should clarify whether Leeds have the guile to break down massed defences when O'Leary's trademark high-tempo game fails to do so.

The conventional wisdom is that the one player they need to translate promise into a tilt at the title is a big, powerful striker to deliver the 20 goals a season provided by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Saturday did little to discredit the theory, though O'Leary admitted he is no closer to signing the right man. At the same time, however, the game highlighted a shortage of variety and ingenuity in his midfield.

Playmakers of the kind to which Leeds supporters were once accustomed, from John Giles through Tony Currie to Gary McAllister, are almost an extinct species. That the creative onus fell on David Batty, whose strength lies in linking play and retaining possession rather than in hitting killer balls, underlined the value of such performers.

The beauty of Batty is also his weakness. The sheer simplicity of his game, a reflection of an unpretentious personality, means his passing is unambitious to a fault. Yet he anchored midfield so effectively that Bowyer and, to a lesser extent David Hopkin, had licence to roam.

Bowyer, whose box-to-box dynamism may earn a place alongside Batty in the England squad this week, had an eventful day. One of the few major incidents he was not involved in saw Lucas Radebe topple Phillips, who gave Sunderland a lead from the spot that did not flatter them unduly.

Leeds sought to exploit their numerical advantage by greater use of the flanks and soon equalised through Bowyer. Danny Mills, a marauding right- back who needs to work on his final ball, scuffed the winner with a shot that did not merit the ensuing topless celebration. Harry Kewell, as ordinary here as he was awesome at Old Trafford, sent a late penalty too close to Thomas Sorensen.

Peter Reid, by his own admission, bit his lip rather than give vent to his feelings about what he regarded as inconsistency in Mr Alcock's treatment of Radebe and Rae. Given the way his team set the tone with Paul Butler's foul on Bridges after just 10 seconds, sympathy was in relatively short supply.

The Sunderland manager wondered, and it might pay O'Leary to do likewise, what the outcome would have been with 11 against 11. What is already clear is that Reid will have to go against his instincts and spend more freely if the Stadium of Light is not to endure its first winter of discontent.

Sorensen, who defied Leeds with a string of agile saves, said afterwards he had been "far busier than I expected" this season. If the First Division champions wanted to survive, the Dane warned, his defenders must learn to cope with the superior mobility they were now encountering. With a potentially explosive derby looming at Newcastle on Wednesday, it looks like being a crash course.

Goals: Phillips (pen 37) 0-1; Bowyer (52) 1-1; Mills (71) 2-1.

Leeds United (4-3-3): Martyn; Mills, Woodgate, Radebe, Harte; Bowyer, Batty, Hopkin; Bridges (Smith, 58), Huckerby, Kewell. Substitutes not used: Duberry, Kelly, McPhail, Robinson (gk).

Sunderland (4-5-1): Sorensen; Makin, Butler (Quinn, 73), Helmer, Gray (Holloway, 63); Summerbee, Schwarz, Ball (Dichio, 90), Rae, McCann; Phillips. Substitutes not used: Oster, Marriott (gk).

Referee: P Alcock (Halstead, Kent).

Bookings: Leeds: Batty, Harte. Sunderland: Butler, Helmer, Schwarz, Rae, Ball, Quinn. Sending-off: Sunderland: Rae.

Man of the match: Sorensen.

Attendance: 39,064.