Football: Leeds' will to win and superior fitness may make them title contenders - next season

Barnsley 2 Leeds United 3
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The Independent Online
How good are Leeds United? Even their manager seems unsure. "We're nowhere near the team I want us to be," George Graham said after a third successive Premiership match in which his charges had given the opposition a start and overcome them. Yet the Premiership's pinnacle is within reach.

"By next Saturday we could be top," one Leeds supporter said, the fires of optimism burning on the way out of Oakwell. "George Graham is a genius."

Both sentences would probably embarrass Graham, who outwardly gives the impression he is astonished that his team were within two points of Manchester United on Saturday night. "I'll only feel confident when I've got some silverware in my hands," he said cagily, but then when did a manager ever expose his true thoughts?

Not that the neutral could have given a clearer exposition. The first impression was that Leeds were so poor you felt War On Want should be contacted urgently. Their defence was a mess, unable to counter even the simplest tactic of the long ball over the centre-backs, their midfield was overrun by Neil Redfearn and Eric Tinkler and their attack? Well I suppose they must have had one.

Redfearn had an hour where it looked like there were three of him on the pitch. He took the free-kicks, every good pass appeared to come from his boot and he would have tackled the main stand if it had showed the slightest inclination of moving.

After seven minutes his looping pass allowed Andy Liddell to beat Nigel Martyn at the second attempt and it was Redfearn's shot that the Leeds goalkeeper could only parry 20 minutes later for Ashley Ward to gorge on the rebound.

Alf Inge Haland got a goal back for Leeds from a corner but if Liddell's header had gone in after 56 minutes instead of being cleared off the line by David Robertson a 3-1 scoreline would hardly have constituted a travesty. Graham had asked his team to play as if they were trailing, but they took it to mean they were were 6-0 down with a minute remaining.

That is the case for the prosecution, the defending counsel would emphasise a second look. For a start Leeds have a will to win that has the ferocity of a rabid rottweiler and reserves of energy that ought to have marathon runners contacting them for training tips. Things might be going their way at the moment, but no team keeps coming back from improbable positions unless they have something going for them.

Manchester United prevail sometimes because their players win their individual battles over 90 rather than 60 minutes and Leeds are doing the same. Barnsley's manager, Danny Wilson, criticised his players for forsaking the long passes that had been so profitable in the first half but he missed the point. The home team, on a pitch turned into a swamp by the deluge, did not have the energy to kick the ball 40 yards. Leeds had run them into the muddy earth.

Leeds' second goal in the 79th minute was a defensive nightmare but bore the imprints of weariness. Arjan de Zeeuw allowed Martyn's clearance to bounce in the area and Lars Leese was slow to recognise the danger, Rod Wallace volleying past him from close range.

Wallace is playing as well as he ever has and he left Darren Barnard kicking at air, crossing low to the near post where Derek Lilley swept the ball in.

It was a grand end to the sort of match that confuses the senses and certainly Graham appeared to have lost his script. "I'd rather win 3-2 than 1-0," he said which had reporters wondering whether they had misheard him.

At this rate he is going to be a happy man because the pluses and minuses of his side should ensure goals at both ends. How good are Leeds United? A championship team they are not, but next season they might be.

Goals: Liddell (7) 1-0; Ward (27) 2-0; Haland (35) 2-1; Wallace (78) 2-2; Lilley (81) 2-3.

Barnsley (4-4-2): Leese; Eaden, De Zeeuw, Markstedt, Barnard; Bullock (Appleby, 79), Tinkler, Redfearn, Bosanic (Moses, 72); Ward, Liddell (Hristov, 86). Substitutes not used: Watson (gk), Hendrie.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn; Halle (Maybury, h-t), Wetherall, Radebe, Robertson; Kelly Bowyer (Lilley, 77), Haland (Molenaar), Ribeiro; Wallace, Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Beeney (gk), Laurent.

Bookings: Barnsley: Bosancic , Tinkler, Moses; Leeds: Halle, Radebe, Haland, Maybury, Robertson.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Man of the match: Redfearn.

Attendance: 18,690.