Football: Speed saves Leeds

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa. . . . 1

Leeds United. . . .1

LEEDS UNITED thought that winning the final Football League title was hard. Now they know, lest they were in any doubt, how much more difficult it will be to finish on top of the Premier League pile. Howard Wilkinson's side, who lost only four matches last season, were six minutes from defeat by Aston Villa last night when Gary Speed's equaliser rewarded their resilience.

Villa, who harbour ambitions of their own after finishing seventh in Ron Atkinson's first year, had taken the lead only six minutes earlier through the manager's namesake Dalian. This only had the effect of provoking a frenzied finale by Leeds, in which Speed duly maintained their unbeaten start.

Wilkinson said afterwards, contentiously, that it was 'as well as we have played under my management'. While the quality was generally high in a match played at breakneck speed, chances were at a premium. Nine months ago Leeds had come to Villa Park and won 4-1 in a performance full of portents and potential, and Villa were clearly determined there would be no repetition.

They were aided by the fact that neither Gordon Strachan nor Mel Sterland, who destroyed them that day, was in the visitors' starting line-up. In his desire to exploit Eric Cantona, Wilkinson is deploying a 4-3-3 formation as opposed to the title-winning 4-4-2.

Ron Atkinson, doubtless recalling how Mark Walters ran Jon Newsome ragged in the Charity Shield, had switched Tony Daley to Villa's left wing with obvious instructions to take on the rookie right-back. The ploy worked up to a point - the one at which Daley had to pick out a claret and blue shirt. Too often, his crosses evoked memories of his infuriatingly patchy Swedish summer.

Ray Houghton might have changed the complexion of his home debut as early as the second minute, yet his free shot from 16 yards threatened the executive-box windows more than John Lukic. Leeds regained their composure, and responded with some intricate passing moves, but Villa came tantalisingly close in the 28th minute.

Cyrille Regis, who had just replaced the injured Dwight Yorke, found the ball at his feet as Leeds failed to clear a free-kick. With his first touch of the evening Regis hooked his shot into the turf, the ball rearing up and clipping the crossbar on its way over. For all the positive intentions of both teams, however, Nigel Spink's parry from Cantona's 25-yard drive shortly before the interval was the game's first real save.

With Steve Hodge replacing David Batty, who aggravated a calf injury, Leeds came more into the picture in the second half. Spink touched a 20-yarder by Hodge behind, while Cantona headed wide from the corner, but Dalian Atkinson hinted at what was in store when he left Chris Whyte in his wake. Lukic made a fine smothering stop.

In the 77th minute, Regis flicked on a Kevin Richardson corner and Atkinson scrambled only his third goal for Villa since signing from Real Sociedad for pounds 1.6m a year ago. A messy goal for champions to concede, but with time running out, Speed raced on to Hodge's through-pass, and with Villa in disarray the Welsh international nutmegged Spink to preserve a point.

Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Daley, Parker, Houghton, Atkinson, Yorke (Regis, 28). Substitutes not used: Ehiogu, Sealey (gk).

Leeds United: Lukic; Newsome, Dorigo, Batty (Hodge, h/t), Fairclough, Whyte, Cantona (Strachan, 79), Wallace, Chapman, McAllister, Speed. Substitute not used: Day (gk).

Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).