Depleted Leeds face battle for elite credibility

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David O'Leary claims he would be "shocked" if his Leeds United team were still involved in the Champions' League next March. With six international players ruled out of tonight's third qualifying round, first-leg match at home to TSV 1860 Munich by injury, it will be a minor triumph if their participation in the competition extends beyond August.

David O'Leary claims he would be "shocked" if his Leeds United team were still involved in the Champions' League next March. With six international players ruled out of tonight's third qualifying round, first-leg match at home to TSV 1860 Munich by injury, it will be a minor triumph if their participation in the competition extends beyond August.

Definitely missing from the Leeds line-up will be Harry Kewell, Jason Wilcox, Stephen McPhail, Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Jones, as well as the long-term casualty David Batty. As if O'Leary did not have enough problems before a tie which holds the promise of a place in the lucrative group stage for the winners, his captain, Lucas Radebe, may also be absent after missing training yesterday because of a virus.

"It's a very easy choice for me," the Leeds manager said when pressed about his selection plans. "I've got 11 players to pick from, and we'll have kids on the bench."

Nor is O'Leary's new £6m striker, Mark Viduka, match-fit, having missed the latter stages of last season with Celtic and sustained an ankle injury on the club's Swedish tour. But he will make his competitive debut for Leeds - against his fellow Australian Ned Zelic, a sweeper formerly with Queen's Park Rangers - as will Olivier Dacourt, the club-record signing at £7.2m from Lens who has impressed in pre-season games.

Gareth Evans, a 19-year-old, locally born former England Under-18 defender, is also in line for his first appearance. A member of the FA Youth Cup-winning team that delivered Kewell and Woodgate, Evans owes his chance partly to the fact that he is the only left-footer not on the treatment table.

Leeds' transparent unease would not be quite so acute had they been paired with lesser opposition which, as a seeded team, they anticipated. 1860, however, finished fourth in the Bundesliga, having provided the league's leading scorer, Martin Max, and completed a double over their co-habitees at the Olympiastadion, the champions Bayern Munich. They have since signed Erik Mykland, outstanding for Norway in Euro 2000, to play beside the veteran Thomas Hässler in midfield.

"1860 are a tough, well-organised side," said O'Leary, who took in their recent friendly with Kaiserslautern. "I was very disappointed with the draw. Third in the English Premiership against fourth in Germany is the sort of tie you would expect in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup. I wish we hadn't drawn them and I'm sure they feel the same about us."

Breaking into the money-spinning phase which starts next month was "not the be-all and end-all", he argued, pointing out that no one characterised Liverpool as a club in crisis because they failed even to reach the qualifying rounds. Yet prevailing against 1860 is clearly crucial to Leeds' credibility - and their financial clout - in terms of trying to lure high-quality players to Elland Road. O'Leary feels he needs at least three more players to maintain a title challenge.

Although his inclination is to lower expectations, O'Leary was tempted into projecting ahead to the prospect of a run like the one which swept Leeds into the Uefa Cup semi-finals last spring. "It would be an achievement if we get past the first stage," he said, citing the travails of his former club as a guide to their chances. "Arsenal have great maturity, household names, but they've yet to get into the second phase in two attempts."

Leeds United (4-4-2; probable): Martyn; Kelly, Duberry, Radebe, Harte; Bowyer, Bakke, Dacourt, Evans; Bridges, Viduka.

TSV 1860 Munich (1-2-5-2; probable): M Hofmann; Zelic; Kuyz, Stranzl; Cerny, Borimirov, Mykland, Hässler, Bierofka; Winkler, Max.

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