Football: O'Leary must lead by remote control

Leeds are missing both manager and caretaker in tonight's Uefa Cup game. Guy Hodgson reports from Rome
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The Independent Online
THERE IS no such thing as a good time to play the second team in Serie A - but Leeds United have chosen a worse moment than most. To be without a manager is unfortunate, to be without a caretaker too could be catastrophic.

David O'Leary, the man in charge while Leeds try to prise Martin O'Neill from Leicester, will be at tonight's Uefa Cup second round first leg against Roma in the Italian capital. His influence, once he has given his team talk in the hotel, however, will be no greater than any other of the travelling fans.

Banned for a match after getting "sent off" in Leeds' last European game against Maritimo of Portugal, O'Leary is not allowed to have any contact with his charges once the team reach the ground - and they may even have to jettison him from the coach before they arrive at Rome's Olympic Stadium. As for a half-time talk, unless he masters semaphore, forget it.

Instead his assistant, Eddie Gray, will have to interpret his superior's intentions and hope for the best. Against a side who have just inflicted the first defeat of the season on Serie A's leaders, Fiorentina, the portents look distinctly unpromising.

"There's no secret way you can send messages, as anyone who knows the stadium will tell you," O'Leary said, particularly frustrated he will not be able to communicate during the interval. "Half-time is important, you never know how a game can change in 45 minutes.

"I think the decision is a joke, completely harsh. In the circumstances of the club having no manager, the ban could have been deferred."

O'Leary's suspension came after he was ordered from the dug-out in Madeira for dissent - something he disputes - and he is angry he has been punished without a chance to see the charges against him, never mind defend himself.

"Rules are rules," he said, "but it would be lovely in a democracy to at least see the referee's report that went to Uefa rather than just receive a fax saying `you're banned'. I find it hard because I was never sent off as a player and I played in many top European and international games."

Just as O'Leary suspects Leeds will find it hard tonight. The Italians have been the lesser club to Lazio in Rome in recent years, but there are suggestions of a revival under the Czech coach, Zdenek Zeman, and Saturday's win over Fiorentina, Gabriel Batistuta and all, after they had been reduced by dismissals to nine men suggests no shortage of team spirit. Particularly as both their goals in the 2-1 success came in the last four minutes.

It is paradoxical, that while Leeds have been leaderless in name since George Graham's defection to Tottenham, Lazio have the most high-profile coach in Italy after Zeman's allegations that drug-taking was rife among the country's footballers.

An inquiry has followed, Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero, who were implicated by Zeman's allegations, are taking legal action and the Italian players' union are threatening a strike. Zeman had been renowned as the man who had managed both Rome clubs - now he has an infamy way beyond that claim to repute.

Nevertheless, the pre-season gloom of supporters who protested at Roma's lack of summer spending has been replaced by a quiet optimism. Any club that can select four Brazilians, including Cafu and Aldair, is not going to lack flair and after five Serie A games they have 10 points, suffering one defeat.

"We will have to play fantastically well because they are a better team than us," O'Leary said. "They are entitled to be, with all the money they have spent. But the one thing we have got is a group of lads whose strength is playing for each other. There were games, when I was with the Republic of Ireland, where we were inferior in many ways but we made up for it."

O'Leary played the 18-year-old Jonathan Woodgate in a five-man defence against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, although whether he will put his trust in youth tonight is debateable, no matter how promising the youngsters might be. Against Maritimo, Leeds played a flat back-four and packed the midfield, and the likelihood is they will attempt to do the same against Roma, trying for a draw or a one-goal defeat - anything that will give them hope for Elland Road in a fortnight.

By then, even their drawn-out search for a new manager should be resolved with either O'Neill or O'Leary in charge. In the latter's case, tonight could represent his last stand in more ways than one.