Football: Yuletide history is stacked against Leeds

IF DAVID O'Leary is invited, Ebenezer Scrooge-like, to peruse Christmas past in search of the future, there is little doubt he would prefer to skip the last two. On both occasions the Premiership leaders on Christmas morning failed to win the championship.

This time last year - and Midlands readers who are easily shocked are invited to turn away here - Aston Villa were top of the Christmas tree and they finished a whopping 24 points behind the eventual winners. Manchester United were the beneficiaries then but they had an inkling of what Villa had gone through because they, too, had ruled at Yuletide and lamented in the spring the previous season.

So, are Leeds, a point ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson's team, setting themselves up for a post-festivity flop? David "I'm a young and naive manager" O'Leary would probably point you in the direction of the downside but anyone who watched last Sunday's resilient 2-0 victory over Chelsea might prefer to go in the opposite direction.

Certainly Peter Ridsdale, the Leeds chairman, had gone way off-message when it came to caution yesterday and was predicting that O'Leary will become one of the great managers. "He is a natural leader," he said. "I am one of those people who believes that leaders are born and not made. They have it naturally and it is instinctive - of course you can fine- tune it - and I believe that David O'Leary has all the attributes of the born leader.

"I think history will end up with him going down as one of that handful of truly great managers over the years like Revie, Shankly and Ferguson."

Nothing to live up to there, then, and it is something of a paradox that O'Leary will have to start justifying that high praise on Boxing Day against Leicester City, who happen to be managed by the man who was Ridsdale's first choice when George Graham left Elland Road, Martin O'Neill.

He chose to stay at Leicester then and has had to repent at leisure as Leeds have gone from strength to strength while Filbert Street has echoed to the sounds of boardroom skirmishes. O'Neill's best present this Christmas was a decisive outcome to that battle and the next would be a repeat of the 1-0 win they achieved at Elland Road last season.

That would also go down pretty well in Manchester, where United have every reason to wonder what they have to do to shake off the young Leeds team. The treble-winners have played a game fewer than they had this time last year but have accrued eight points more and still they are in second place.

Their Christmas programme is a journey into the relative unknown before they explore the complete variety in the World Club Championship in Brazil in January as both matches are against clubs promoted from the First Division.

They begin on Boxing Day against Bradford City - who have not become the cannon fodder they were expected to be by this stage of the season - and then face a trip to the Stadium of Light, which has become a perilous place to visit.

Bradford recorded their fourth win of the season against Newcastle last Saturday and the evidence suggests that they are getting better as they have got used to the Premiership rather than worse as the Premiership gets used to them. They have, however,scored only nine goals in 21 league visits to Old Trafford and hidden in that record is a 7-0 thrashing they received during the Christmas holiday period of 1935.

Third-placed Sunderland warm up for the visit of United with a match at Everton, a team they achieved a double over in their last season in the Premiership, 1996-97. Last beaten away from home in the Premiership at Leeds in August, they will set a post-war club record of seven unbeaten away matches if they avoid defeat at Goodison, surpassing the six they achieved in the top flight 64 years ago.

Arsenal, a point behind Sunderland, have a tricky trip to Coventry, who may be 15th but were unfortunate not to wrest something from their trip to Anfield last Saturday. Liverpool, with eight wins from their last 10 matches, will also not be relishing going to St James' Park, where Newcastle thrashed Tottenham 6-1 on Wednesday night. The high-altitude battle there between Duncan Ferguson and Sami Hyypia ought to be worth the admission price on its own.

Tottenham, at home to Watford, have to pick up the pieces of a season that has gone horribly wrong in the last month. "It is polite to say we were below par," George Graham, the Spurs manager, said as he examined the post-Tyneside wreckage. The White Hart Lane crowd will not be minding their manners if there is a repeat, and "Sugar out", you can safely say, will not be advice about a New Year's resolution diet.