Football: Wilkinson ready for sound and fury

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The Independent Online
BATTLE of Britain, unofficial British championship, call it what you will, Rangers versus Leeds United at Ibrox tonight will have all the continental sophistication of haggis and Yorkshire pudding - and should prove just as tasty.

European Cup or not, the billing has been on the extravagant side, but provided it is only the hype that goes OTT, there will be no real harm done. Better the prattling than the tackling.

The cross-border scrap for domestic supremacy is sure to be fierce and frenetic, taking on added piquancy at a time when the oldest of all international fixtures is in abeyance. In the absence of England v Scotland, a Cup tie between their respective champions carries all the added emotional baggage of a representative fixture.

The nature of the occasion makes it one for the punter rather than the purist, both sides talking in terms of those yeoman British values, commitment and character, rather than composure.

Foot on the ball? 'You must be joking,' snorts Gordon Strachan. 'Only if you want it kicked off.'

Howard Wilkinson chose passion and pace as his text for the day. 'Did you see anyone put his foot on it when Milan played Lazio on Sunday?' It was a rhetorical question, but he answered it just in case, with a shake of the head.

'For some reason,' he said, 'this idea persists that there's someone out there with a whip in his hand, wearing top hat and tails, to whom the ball goes every other pass. In fact, that sort of player doesn't exist in Italy, or in Spain, at the moment.'

There was nothing wrong with a fast tempo, Wilkinson added, warming to his theme. 'This has been called a game of high passion and fervour, and rightly so. Both sets of players have learned to cope with that. They can play the game at a higher pace, if necessary, and they may need to here.

'I can't ring up Walter Smith, the Rangers' manager, and reach an agreement that both sides close down a fraction slower and take their free-kicks more slowly. We can't do that, so it may be one of those games.'

It will be if Gary McAllister's attitude is typical. Leeds' Scottish midfielder was at pains to deny suggestions that he is a Rangers' supporter - 'I watched Motherwell as a boy' - but admitted he was 'really fired up' by what he regarded as the fixture of the season.

Fired up is one thing, carried away quite another, and Wilkinson is impressing upon his players the need to maintain their discipline, and not to go chasing the game as they did to their cost in Stuttgart.

In their first match against the German champions, Leeds played with restraint and intelligence for an hour, but panicked and tore up their defensive strategy on conceding the first goal, and quickly lost two more when they charged out of the trenches.

'I hope we have learned,' Wilkinson said, 'that concentration, tactics and objectives can't be allowed to go down the pan immediately a goal goes in. We have got to develop the ability to stand back for a moment and ask ourselves: are we all right, or do we have to change course?'

Much has been made of the Ibrox atmosphere, but the hotbed cools rapidly when Rangers freeze, and a funereal chill descended when Red Star Belgrade and Bayern Munich found Glasgow anything but intimidating.

Wilkinson says: 'I don't see playing here as too much of a problem, if you get your head right. There may be 38,000 people (the limit set by UEFA), but they can't kick the ball, or tackle you, and good players - good competitors - don't mind a bit of noise. They'd rather play in front of 38,000 than 4,000.'

Rangers, naturally, see it rather differently, the alternative view articulated by Stuart McCall, whose father played for Leeds, and raised him in the lee of Elland Road. The Scotland midfielder, currently deputising for Gary Stevens at right-back, says: 'Ibrox could get to them. When our fans are charged up, as they are going to be, they can be some force. It can be an intimidating experience.'

Both managers delay selection, but Rangers are expected to use Peter Huistra, the Dutch winger, to attack Leeds' suspect right flank, which would mean no place for Ukraine's Alexei Mikhailichenko.

Wilkinson has Rod Wallace and Steve Hodge fit again, but will keep faith with the players who finally disposed of Stuttgart in Barcelona 12 days ago.

Victory overall, and a place in the mini-leagues which have replaced the tournament's third round, could be worth more than pounds 3m. 'We know the prize,' Wilkinson said. So do the players. Leeds are on pounds 10,000 a man to progress; Rangers stand to collect twice as much. Fired up? No wonder.

Rangers (probable): Goram; McCall, Robertson, Gough, McPherson, Brown, Steven, Ferguson, Hateley, McCoist, Huistra.

Leeds United: Lukic; Fairclough, Newsome, Whyte, Dorigo, Batty, Cantona, McAllister, Strachan, Chapman, Speed.

Scottish fans will be able to watch the entire Rangers-Leeds match but only an hour after the game ends at Ibrox, following the failure yesterday of Scottish Television's attempt to screen it live. Scotland is the only area in the British Isles where the game will not be seen live, because of the Hearts v Standard Liege game.

Ken Jones on the night Leeds were

humbled in Glasgow, page 30

World Cup schedule, page 31