Brave Leeds close to breakthrough

O'Leary's side strive against the odds while United's millionaires lack desire for battle
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On a night when the crowned heads of European football wobbled on their thrones, it was fitting that Leeds United's attempts to join the revolution were led by the forces of youth.

On a night when the crowned heads of European football wobbled on their thrones, it was fitting that Leeds United's attempts to join the revolution were led by the forces of youth.

Barcelona were within seconds at Elland Road of suffering the same unexpected defeats that Juventus and Manchester United did on Tuesday when Rivaldo finally pierced Leeds' resistance. Even now a point for the Yorkshire side in Milan on 9 November will send Barcelona to the Champions' League guillotine.

Should that happen a fair measure of the credit will go to Leeds' rookie goalkeeper Paul Robinson and his still youthful, but more experienced, team-mates Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer.

Bowyer has regularly excelled in this campaign while Woodgate, since returning from injury, and Robinson, deputising for Nigel Martyn, have underlined Leeds' promise.

Add Alan Smith who, though still prone to lapses in behaviour, is revealing more and more of his potential and you have four more reasons, along with the tyros of Old Trafford, Anfield and Upton Park, for the next England manager to be more optimistic about the future than the lack of eager suitors for the post would appear to suggest.

It would not escape many readers' notice, however, that two of the Leeds quartet are currently regarded as unavailable for England while they face serious charges relating to an alleged assault. Woodgate and Bowyer, with others, are now expected to face trial in January over an incident which occurred in Leeds last season and the FA recently reaffirmed that, until the case is closed, they will remain "off limits". Legal restrictions prevent the case being discussed here, but whatever the rights and wrongs, and eventual outcome, the pair's ability to put their worries aside to perform so well for their club has been remarkable.

The pressure on Robinson has been less serious but daunting nonetheless. Just six first-team appearances, amid several years in the reserves or sitting on the bench, are extremely limited preparation for the task of braving Besiktas in Istanbul, Manchester United at Old Trafford, and Barcelona anywhere. Liverpool and Milan are still to come. So far he has been beaten by an offside goal, a deflection, an own goal and Rivaldo's rebound strike after he had been wrong-footed when Gerard headed against the post. In between he has made so many excellent saves no one could suggest Martyn has been missed.

"He's made some fantastic saves," said David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, yesterday. "He's not a bad keeper and over the next few years he can become a very good one. Provided he keeps his feet on the ground he can go on to play for Leeds for many years and for his country."

Martyn, who will be out for another four weeks with a groin injury, suggested Robinson should also replace him in the England squad which travels to Turin next month. Since Peter Taylor not only picked him for the Under-21s, but also tried to sign him for Leicester, it is not beyond possibility.

"It would be the perfect opportunity," said Martyn. "He's done very well and would love the experience. I would rate Paul as the best young keeper out there. I would have been very proud of a performance like that and if he continues to play like that then I might not get my place back."

The modest Robinson did not agree. "It was a pleasing performance but I'm just filling a hole at the moment. Nige has already proved himself."

With Milan already through, Barcelona, who must beat Besiktas at home to have a chance of qualifying, clearly fear the Italians may go easy on Leeds. That was evident when Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, the Barça coach, said: "It is not a question of Milan doing us a favour. It is a question of honesty."

O'Leary, while hoping Milan "look kindly upon us", was taking the long-term view. "Look at Arsenal," he said. "With all their great players, they have taken three attempts to go through from the first phase. We were 30 seconds from doing so at the first attempt and, if we can get out of this group with the amount of injuries, the depletion of our squad and the way we have overcome it, then it would be brilliant. It would be like winning the competition."

WHAT LEEDS MUST DO TO QUALIFY

GROUP H

P W D L F A Pts

Milan (Q) 5 3 1 1 11 5 10 Leeds 5 2 2 1 8 5 8 Barcelona 5 1 2 2 8 9 5 Besiktas 5 1 1 3 4 12 4

If Leeds take at least a point in their final match against Milan at San Siro on 8 November they will qualify as runners-up. A draw or a win would ensure Milan finish top, a Leeds win would put them top. If Barcelona do not beat Besiktas at the Nou Camp, Leeds will go through. However, if Leeds lose and Barcelona win, the Catalans qualify because they took most points courtesy of a 4-0 win and a 1-1 draw in the two games between the sides.

Comments