Football: Sturridge restores a perfect balance

Derby County 2 Schnoor pen 3, Sturridge 56 Leeds United 2 Molena ar 16, Kewell 43 Attendance: 27,034
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The Independent Online
TWO TEAMS barely separated by the statistics of the Premiership table proved to be just as closely matched on the field. Those expecting caution from a Leeds side approaching a big European night and a Derby outfit recovering from a dismal midweek Cup display were in for a pleasant surprise.

The enchanting contrast of the League's newest manager, David O'Leary, pitched against Jim Smith, the wiliest of campaigners, created a concoction of raw entertainment.

O'Leary, though, has already developed the air of an assured veteran after his brief spell as caretaker. "I didn't feel this was my first game in charge. I was disappointed with the two goals but happy in the end. The way we came back in the first half, we could have come in more than 2-1 up but our second goal was very sloppy."

The true veteran, Smith, was equally matter of fact. "We started well but lost a goal to another set-play which affected us mentally. Leeds fully deserved their second goal although there was a lot of luck in it. It was very important to get something out of the game today and it looked as though Burton should have made it 3-2," Smith said.

It was rarely pretty, but it was eventful from start to finish. Leeds were immediately caught on the hop when, after only two minutes, Dean Sturridge was flattened just inside the area. There was little argument with the penalty decision, and even less doubt about the execution. Stefan Schnoor provided a perfect example of the art of German penalty taking with the young keeper Paul Robinson soundly beaten to his right.

The build-up to the Leeds retort was tinged with more controversy. The referee, Neale Barry, misjudged Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's theatricals under minimal challenge from Tony Dorigo. David Hopkin's freekick delivery curled away from Russell Hoult but head long into the path of the runaway Robert Molenaar. His header was powerfully directed across and into the vacated goal.

The early flurry of goals set the precedent for a succession of incidents, Leeds initially bullying their way into threatening positions, while Derby always remained a menace on the counter.

Leeds, however, finished the half the stronger. Hasselbaink's fierce shot flew wide and Harry Kewell, revelling in his role as partner to the Dutchman, badly miscued a volley. Gunnar Halle was one of a number of Leeds players to test the agility of Hoult, the Norwegian's effort tipped over for a corner from which the goalkeeper deserved better fortune. After the ball had worked clear to Kewell, lurking outside a packed area, his low drive was deflected and Hoult was left stranded.

The break did not interrupt the flow of thrills. Robinson failed to deal with a Schnoor long throw and, from the resulting scramble, Sturridge was only marginally able to connect with an overhead kick. The Leeds captain Lucas Radebe was stretchered off having suffered a knee injury in the same incident and the repercussions were felt. Sturridge slipped his marker's attentions outside the box to run on to a neat Darryl Powell through ball. As Robinson approached, Sturridge slid in to redirect the path inside the post and restore the balance. That was the striker's parting shot as he limped off with a groin injury and the game lapsed into a scrappy conclusion.

Sturridge's replacement Deon Burton was handed the chance of glory but could only squirt his free header off target in the dying minutes.