James Lawton: Leeds must patch up their self-inflicted wounds

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The Independent Football

Lee Bowyer's return after a six-match suspension for Leeds against Manchester United today is likely to further enliven a football cocktail that for so long has qualified for the brand-name Molotov. Yet if the action is fierce, on the field and perhaps on the terraces, it is unlikely to dispel the sense of a dwindling horizon.

This is, of course, particularly true of the Leeds perspective. Beyond their chance of qualifying for the Champions' League, which is so critical to their delicate finances and has been enhanced by a run of three straight Premiership victories, albeit against the relegation threatened Blackburn and Ipswich and the rigor mortified Leicester, ambition is at a depressingly low ebb. But then nor is it exactly rampant at Old Trafford after the quarter-final European Cup draw against the menacing Deportivo and last week's catastrophe at home to Middlesbrough.

The high noon reality is that while five months ago at Old Trafford these teams waged front-line war in what was perceived as maybe the psychologically pivotal game of the season, today they belong more in the category of walking wounded.

Leeds are scarred beyond their worst fears by their failure to cope with the convulsions of the Bowyer-Jonathan Woodgate affair. United are still coming to terms with the dislocation of confidence brought by the threat of Sir Alex Ferguson's departure and a chronic failure to bind up the centre of their defence. The reigning champions have an additional problem. They have to fight to recreate old appetites while Liverpool and Arsenal have at times exhibited a willingness to bite their way through the fridge door.

It means that a certain poignancy is bound to accompany the fire and brimstone which is further guaranteed by the return of Roy Keane. It will come with the knowledge that the worst wounds suffered by both teams have been self-inflicted.

For Leeds the pain must be particularly keen when they consider the momentum which this time last year was sweeping them into the semi-finals of the European Cup. That particular dream disintegrated on a turbulent night in Valencia, when Gaizka Mendieta produced a wonderfully fluent performance and young Alan Smith's grudging response was an attempt to toe-end the substitute Vicente clear out of the Mestalla stadium. Bowyer was out because of a suspension handed down by Uefa on the eve of the game, and that was not the only disturbing portent. For a show of unity, the Leeds players decided to shave their heads, a course of action which Bowyer and Woodgate, who were facing trial, were advised by their lawyers not to follow.

It was wise counsel. The shaved heads should quickly enough have been augmented by sackcloth.

Defeat in Valencia might have been the point at which Leeds carefully assessed their remarkable progress, and laid down for themselves certain priorities, discipline crying out to be one of the main ones. For a while that seemed to be the case. Leeds came into the season looking more formidable than ever, and if Smith and Danny Mills most notably had skimped on the disciplinary lessons, there was a strong whiff of re-doubled ambition, not least when Arsenal were treated to a minimum of respect at Highbury. United were also brought under severe pressure at Old Trafford, when Leeds seemed just a stride away from that conviction which would have built on an early lead and delivered a stunning message about future intentions. As it was, United fought back for a draw. But they had been wounded and warned and that the real threat would come from elsewhere, and not least within Old Trafford, only became apparent when the aftermath of the trial overwhelmed Leeds.

Now both Leeds and United are case studies in what happens when departures are made from the classic recipe for winning football, and this is true despite the fact that United retain the possibility of winning both the Premiership and the European Cup, while Leeds still have a strong chance of returning to the Champions' League.

The mistakes of Leeds have been utterly fundamental. Manager David O'Leary's decision to serialise his book and provide a flood of divisive publicity within days of the end of the trial was perhaps most damaging. It inevitably created a mood of resentment in the dressing room, one expressed plainly in the celebration of a Bowyer goal, and even now there is a sense of a team not so much re-committed to the old goals but preparing for general de-mobilisation. Interestingly, O'Leary was pointedly silent in the controversy which followed the decision to exclude Woodgate from England's World Cup preparations. He said that he had "absolutely" nothing to say, and whether the implication was a deepening feeling of outrage about the FA or a new resolution to take care with his public pronouncements was not quite clear. Admirers of the manager's work which made Leeds an arresting example of a young, talented team playing without fear will no doubt be hoping it was the latter case.

For Ferguson, frustrated in his attempts to sharpen his defence, the hope must be that Ronny Johnsen passes a fitness test and that Ruud van Nistelrooy's recovery from a groin strain will see confirmation of his status as the signing of the new millennium. Ferguson's deepest problem is the one he addressed forcibly enough at the time of United's mid-season agony. Then he wondered aloud if too much had been taken for granted, if the men who had taken United to the top of the mountain had begun to tire of the view. Such speculation could only have intensified while he watched United's shocking subsidence against Middlesbrough.

Indifference, though, is not likely to be the problem today if the Leeds crowd produce traditional levels of hatred when United go on to the field. Unfortunately for Ferguson, such built-in motivation is hard to find when you have a team so deeply familiar with the rewards of success. It is something some Leeds fans may wish to ponder on their way to Elland Road. Do they really want to give Manchester United a lift?