Aston Villa. . . .1
LIKE so many clubs before them, with the dazzling exception of Liverpool, Leeds are discovering that defending the championship is infinitely more difficult than winning it. For the second time in a month Aston Villa were within five minutes of lowering their colours yesterday, before Steve Hodge scored to cancel out Garry Parker's first-half goal.
At Villa Park, Hodge had appeared late in the game to lay on the equaliser against one of his former employers. This time Elland Road's eternal substitute struck himself, at an identical stage, to extend Leeds' unbeaten home League run to 27 games and spare a side who lost only four times all last season the indignity of a third defeat in eight matches.
Nevertheless, it was hardly the send-off Leeds would have wanted as they fly to Germany this morning for Wednesday's European Cup meeting with VfB Stuttgart. The Bundesliga champions' representatives will have taken back reports of a disjointed Leeds outfit who finished the match with two midfielders, Gary McAllister and Gary Speed, in the full-back positions.
One source of satisfaction for Leeds, who badly missed the balance and mobility offered by Tony Dorigo and Rod Wallace, was that they prevented Dean Saunders from scoring on his Villa debut. Ron Atkinson's pounds 2.3m striker should have opened his account on the hour, after Kevin Richardson had slipped him clear, but John Lukic saved with his legs. While the Welshman was busily unproductive, his mere presence had the desired effect on the confidence of a Villa team whose results have not always reflected their talents.
They were well worth their 18th-minute lead. The outstanding Paul McGrath had already sent a volley too close for Lukic's comfort when Speed was caught in possession by Earl Barrett. Ray Houghton seized on the ball and carried it 20 yards as Leeds backed off before rolling it inside to Parker. The former Nottingham Forest midfielder took one touch to control and another to place his shot into the far corner of the net from 16 yards.
Leeds responded with urgency bordering on desperation. Speed had a header hacked off the line by Parker; Nigel Spink denied Scott Sellars a debut goal; and both McAllister and Eric Cantona saw efforts lodge in the keeper's hands. The referee, Joe Worrall, also rightly refused a succession of home penalty appeals, and Barrett would have deepened the crowd's frustration had he not wasted a free header in the 36th minute.
The pattern of laboured Leeds pressure and brisk Villa counter-attacking persisted in the second half. Speed and Lee Chapman both had chances cleared from under the bar, while Spink made agile saves from headers by Cantona and Sellars. Even then Villa could have put the game out of reach, but the infuriatingly offside-prone Dalian Atkinson shot against Chris Whyte when it seemed easier to score.
Villa paid for his profligacy when McAllister's long pass was flicked on by the head of Cantona. Hodge, controlling the ball on his chest, rifled it past Spink from 10 yards to prove that Leeds, even when they are below par, remain resilient to the last.
Leeds United: Lukic; Newsome (Hodge, 68), Sellars, Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Cantona, Strachan, Chapman, McAllister, Speed. Substitutes not used: Rocastle, Day (gk).
Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson, Froggatt. Substitutes not used: Ehiogu, Yorke, Sealey (gk).
Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).
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