Barcelona date too soon for O'Leary

Guy Hodgson feels for a manager with no time and few fit players
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The Independent Football

David O'Leary had an unenviable task yesterday. His injury-ravaged team had just been dismantled by Man-chester United, and even though he could draw pride in a performance chiselled from severe adversity, the immediate future looked no brighter. "Oh well, lads, it's only Barc-elona in the Champions' League on Tuesday."

David O'Leary had an unenviable task yesterday. His injury-ravaged team had just been dismantled by Man-chester United, and even though he could draw pride in a performance chiselled from severe adversity, the immediate future looked no brighter. "Oh well, lads, it's only Barc-elona in the Champions' League on Tuesday."

It is a measure of Leeds' development that they can meet two giants of the European game within four days, but it would be nice to calculate the feet and inches with something approaching your best team. And O'Leary's team resembled nothing like that yesterday. Even the piece of granite that normally stands in for Sir Alex Ferguson's compassion for opponents was moved yesterday, to the extent that he almost felt sorry for them.

"Once I saw the Leeds team I thought it was going to be a difficult day for them," he said. "You can get away with one or two injuries and still put out a team that can give you a performance, but I don't think anyone expected them to win today, there were just too many young players. It doesn't matter how much ability they have got, it's very difficult coming to a place like Old Trafford with the experience we have now."

It is and it was. Leeds, stripped of Lucas Radebe, Nigel Martyn and a list of other casualties that reads like the fallen on a battlefield, stretched their meagre resources to match the champions for 39 minutes, but once they fell behind to a goal the legality of which depended on your view of the offside law, they looked what they were: too weak to compete properly.

By the end David Beckham, whose introduction for the injured Roy Keane proved the turning point, was even taking the mickey, juggling the ball on his thighs by the corner flag before delivering another cross to bear for the Leeds defence. For a club trying to match the might of Old Trafford it was a difficult image to endure.

It was a difficult afternoon, particularly as Leeds felt the first goal, scored by Dwight Yorke after he had earlier been deemed not to be interfering with play, had proved crucial. "That goal was debatable, to say the least," O'Leary said. "In fact I thought a few decisions were debatable. I would love to say more but I can't."

Yorke's goal arrived just before half-time, and when Jacob Burns lost the plot and pushed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over after 48 minutes, Beckham's free-kick meant that mission improbable had become a damn sight harder than that. "At two down at Old Trafford, it's very, very hard, even with your top team," O'Leary said.

"Yes it's very frustrating," he continued, revealing he had feared the worst even as he put pen to team-sheet. "I would say diplomatically that with 11 players out and coming to Old Trafford to face a fantastic team there was a chance we wouldn't win. A few players lacked match fitness but I had no choice but to play them, otherwise we would have had to have asked for the game to be called off."

Another side O'Leary would describe as "fantastic", Barc-elona, await on Tuesday, and yesterday the Leeds manager did not know what resources would be available to him. "I haven't got a clue," he said. "I'll get back to the training ground at around 3.30 and I'll see the injured players there. There's 11 of them, and they'd make a good team."

The health or otherwise of that 11 will have a significant say in whether Leeds make the second phase of the Champions' League and, indeed, their fate in the Premiership. A side brimming with youthful verve and dripping with promise could do with another commodity: a bit of luck.

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