Football: Leg-weary Leeds are humbled by Hartson

t PREMIERSHIP Moscow mission takes its toll as O'Leary's men spurn chance to regain top spot while Wimbledon continue their rejuvenation
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Wimbledon 2 Leeds United 0

WIMBLEDON'S DEMISE has clearly been exaggerated. The question being asked at Selhurst Park yesterday afternoon was whether the same applied to Leeds United's rise.

Leeds had arrived requiring a win to return to the top of the Premiership. They never looked like getting it. Having gone behind to John Hartson's 31st-minute goal, they appeared to be gaining control until being finished off by Marcus Gayle's header 10 minutes into the second period.

The fluid football which had earned 12 wins and a draw from the previous 13 matches was missing and David O'Leary did not have to guess at the reason for their lack of sharpness.

The team only arrived back from their midweek Uefa Cup victory over Lokomotiv Moscow on Friday afternoon and the Leeds manager said: "It is not possible to compete in Moscow on a Thursday and here on a Sunday. There were a few players not quite right and we didn't have the sparkle or cutting edge."

Leeds' leading opponents, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, will doubtless point out their programme has been even more demanding and Leeds have played the least number of games (19) of the quartet and have kept the most settled side.

While the others have used 33, 26 and 25 players respectively, Leeds have only required 19. In Nigel Martyn and David Batty they have the only two ever-presents of the "big four" teams though, because of their rivals' greater number of games, several of their players (Jaap Stam, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ed de Goey, Patrick Vieira and Martin Keown) have actually played more football.

O'Leary pointed to Manchester United's squad strength as a reason for their ability to cope but his own team has some depth, expensively acquired depth. Of his five summer signings only Michael Bridges is a regular. The rest of his pounds 17m investment - Danny Mills, Michael Duberry, Darren Huckerby and Eric Bakke - come off the bench, if they play at all.

O'Leary is also understood to have a pounds 25m "war-chest" courtesy of Atletico Madrid's purchase of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Sky TV's acquisition of a stake in the club. A significant portion of this is earmarked for a striker to replace the Dutchman's missing muscle and the lightweight nature of their attack yesterday - Bridges was absent with a back strain - showed why.

Someone like John Hartson might be an answer, though one suspects he would struggle if not played every week. Though he is a Tottenham target, such speculation is academic according to Sam Hamman, the Wimbledon chairman, who used the opening page of the match programme to address the question of player sales.

He wrote: "Everyone's been asking so I'll give it to you straight: John Hartson, Jason Euell, Ben Thatcher, Kenny Cunningham and Carl Cort will not be leaving Wimbledon this season. Clear?"

These, he said, were the players he regarded as his "champions". However, he went on to say the club's finances were still stretched and offers might be entertained for other players. All this was part of the long- term objective to make the team title contenders. "Being in the Premier League," he added, "we take for granted."

After a shaky start under Egil Olsen, this sense of confidence is now being reflected on the pitch with this win making it one defeat in 11.

This confidence showed in a forceful opening as Hartson shot over in the first minute and had another drive blocked by Lucas Radebe in the second.

A weaving run and 20-yard shot by Huckerby hinted at Leeds' attacking potential but the Dons continued to threaten with Hartson drawing a brace of saves from Nigel Martyn, the first a particularly fine one to palm away the Welshman's header from Kenny Cunningham's cross.

By the half-hour mark Leeds, with Kewell dropping deep to make a fourth man in midfield, had begun to gain regular possession but Hartson then put Wimbledon ahead, driving home Cunningham's cross after a deflection off Ian Harte had wrong-footed Jonathon Woodgate.

Leeds re-emerged for the second period to be greeted by Dvorak's New World Symphony, aka "the music from the Hovis advert". It was, indeed, an occasion for stereotypical Yorkshire attitudes like graft, doggedness and patience but with Wimbledon pulling all but Hartson behind the ball when they lost possession a bit of fancy-Dan flair was required as well. With Harry Kewell well marshalled by Cunningham, and Stephen McPhail lacking support, that was largely absent though Lee Bowyer might have already levelled from Huckerby's 41st-minute cross but headed it straight at Neil Sullivan.

Gayle's near post header, from Alan Kimble's corner, then settled the match though Leeds might still have forced a rousing finish had Trond Andersen not cleared Bakke's 86th-minute header off the line.

That ensured Wimbledon's first clean sheet in 30 games and sealed what Olsen described as Wimbledon's "best performance of the season."

O'Leary's final verdict was equally generous: "I'm proud of them, they gave all they could. If we go on another unbeaten run for 13 games I'll be very happy."

Goals: Hartson (31) 1-0; Gayle (65) 2-0.

Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Cunningham, Hreidarsson, Thatcher, Kimble; Earle, Andersen, Euell; Cort (Andresen, 90), Hartson (Leaburn, 89), Gayle (Badir, 80). Substitutes not used: Blackwell, Davis (gk).

Leeds United (4-3-3): Martyn; Kelly, Radebe, Woodgate (Duberry, h-t), Harte; Bowyer (Bakke, 61), Batty, McPhail; Huckerby, Smith (Hopkin, 78), Kewell.

Substitutes not used: Robinson (g), Mills.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough) Booked: Wimbledon: Kimble, Hreidarsson.

Attendance: 18,747.

Man of the match: Cunningham.