Football: Mediocrity rules in the Premiership

Leeds United 2 Bolton Wanderers 0
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The Independent Online
Fourth in the Premiership and yet George Graham speaks about the six or so points needed to be safe from relegation. Leeds in a false position or merely their manager's natural caution?

Pleased but surprised is the strength of it. "A strange season," Graham said. "Anybody can beat anybody else." Colin Todd agreed with him. "Apart from the top teams there isn't a great deal of difference," the Bolton manager said.

Trouble is that the levelling off is downwards rather than upwards, mediocre matches making a nonsense of Sky television's incessant promotion. Where is all this quality they keep going on about?

Old players do not always make the best witnesses but there was some substance in comments two former internationals, Kenny Burns and Frank Worthington, passed about Saturday's proceedings. One thing upon which they were both in agreement at half-time was the absence of penetrating movement.

Things improved after the interval but until then neither goalkeeper had been greatly troubled, the best effort coming from Nathan Blake whose header was foiled by Nigel Martyn's impressive reflexes.

The longer you looked at this match the clearer it became that there are only a handful of teams whose play supports the view that Premier League football is as technically proficient as you'll get anywhere. For most of them, as it still is for Leeds, survival is the priority.

Bolton are not alone with their anxiety at the season's half-way mark which makes Graham's eagerness to secure a few more points all the more understandable. "Looking at the table any of a dozen teams, maybe more, could find themselves in a dogfight," he said.

Only five points separate West Ham in 10th place from Bolton who are fourth from bottom. It explains probably why Todd did not convey the impression of a man facing up to bleak prospects. "Of course, it's bound to be on your mind," he said, "but things are so tight in the bottom half that a couple of wins can make a world of difference."

As Graham agreed, a big difference on Saturday was that Bolton did not take their chances. "You don't get many, especially away from home, so in that respect we were probably a little fortunate," he added.

Never mind formations and tactics. Whether it is Bolton or Brazil, chance- taking is what matters.

Leeds eventually took theirs, the first a terrific strike by Bruno Ribeiro in the 68th minute that gave Graham a further opportunity to the virtues of his Portuguese midfielder. "I took him as a squad player," he said, "but he's done a lot better than I imagined. Terrific skill and a good attitude." A bonus was that Ribeiro sent a wickedly swerving volley past Gavin Ward with his right foot. "Normally he only uses it for standing on," Graham said.

That put paid to a spell of Bolton superiority although Per Frandsen's powerful free-kick and a header from Peter Beardsley almost brought Bolton level.

Among the players Graham singled out for praise - especially Robert Molenaar whose speed over the ground foiled some of Bolton's best efforts - was Jimmy Hasselbaink. If Hasselbaink is finding the Premiership's intensity a problem he still knows a thing or two about how to turn a defender.

The sufferer in this case was a former Leeds defender Chris Fairclough who made the mistake of getting too close and on the wrong side of Hasselbaink when Molenaar's speculative long pass reached him. In a flash Hasselbaink twisted into space and placed a low shot past Ward.

It left Graham with a sense of satisfaction, Todd with the belief that things could have easily been different. Similar problems but a different outlook.

Goals: Ribeiro (68) 1-0; Hasselbaink (81) 2-0.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn; Halle, Wetherall, Molenaar, Robertson; Kelly, Haland, Hopkin (Bowyer, 79), Ribeiro; Wallace, Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Lilley, Laurent, Maybury, Beeney (gk).

Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Ward; Bergsson, Todd, Fairclough, Phillips; Johansen (Carr, 76), Pollock, Frandsen, Sellars; Blake, Beardsley. Substitutes not used: Whitlow, Cox, Gunnlaugsson, Jaskelainen (gk).

Bookings: Leeds: Robertson, Hasselbaink, Hopkin. Bolton: Sellars, Beardsley, Johansen, Phillips.

Referee: A B Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Man of the match: Molenaar.

Attendance: 31,163.

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