Leeds enjoy Harte attack

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The Independent Online

Having had four players sent off and conceded nine goals in two traumatic defeats by Leeds last season, West Ham could perhaps be forgiven their polite caution at Elland Road yesterday. It ought to have offered Leeds the easiest way to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches and confirm their position at the top of the Premiership, but in reality their super- iority was never properly sealed with the sort of finishing now expected of them.

Having had four players sent off and conceded nine goals in two traumatic defeats by Leeds last season, West Ham could perhaps be forgiven their polite caution at Elland Road yesterday. It ought to have offered Leeds the easiest way to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches and confirm their position at the top of the Premiership, but in reality their super- iority was never properly sealed with the sort of finishing now expected of them.

For all of the thrills, it was the spillage of goals in a 4-4 draw with Everton the week before which made Leeds want nothing more than a quiet, more defensively secure performance against West Ham. But that remarkable match at Goodison, in which they came back to equalise three times, had at least proved that they had resilience, and as their manager, David O'Leary, said yesterday: "You can't expect three or four goals every week - our lot are still learning in the top line."

In spite of their comparative youth, have Leeds got the ability and resources to challenge Manchester United and Arsenal's monopoly at the summit of the Premiership? West Ham's Harry Redknapp thinks they have. Each match is another chapter in the book of answers. Yesterday, the question Redknapp's depleted team posed Leeds was how to break down a side determined to avoid being taken apart by the youthful exuberance of Michael Bridges and Harry Kewell.

Redknapp offered the reason for his team's defensiveness as: "We had seven players missing who would probably have started, but that's no excuse - Leeds have all the ingredients for a very good side. They've also got the advantage of not being in the Champions' League."

Primarily without Paolo Di Canio, Igor Stimac and Trevor Sinclair, West Ham had Paul Kitson accompanying Paulo Wanchope in a two-man attack that they had difficulty in supporting as David Batty efficiently directed Leeds in midfield, while Bridges and Alan Smith found space upfield. Behind them, or speeding on the left side, Kewell was always threatening. His 21st-minute shot from far bey-ond the penalty area demanded an impressive, leaping dive and deflection from Shaka Hislop.

West Ham's priority was to keep as tight as they could across the back and counter-attack as safely as possible - never an easy tactic against a team full of pace and confidence. Yet in spite of their almost constant occupation of the West Ham half, Leeds were not at their eloquent best. Neil Ruddock and Rio Ferdinand stood firm against most of what was thrown at them, which was a lot, but Hislop was permanently on the alert. He was grateful for his long reach when, shortly before half-time, Kewell again tested him with a dipping drive.

If possession and opportunities had counted for anything, Leeds would have gone for their tea break with a cup full of goals. Nigel Martyn in their goal was required to handle the ball only once in earnest throughout the first 45 minutes. Leeds' 12 first-half corners gave an indication of the flow, which continued unchanged into the second as Lee Bowyer's deep centre was harmlessly given a glancing header by Smith, who was making a habit of getting height without power or direction.

Eventually, in the 57th min-ute, a centre, again by Bowyer, was poorly headed away by Steve Lomas directly to Ian Harte, who had moved up into the West Ham penalty area and found the ball coming to him in unmarked freedom. He composed himself and beat Hislop with a rasping shot inside the near post. It was a long time coming but the goal was worth the wait. Not that it persuaded West Ham to stop having eight men behind the ball until the final 10 minutes.

The only concern Leeds could be forgiven was the possibility that their own failure to capitalise on so much domination could suddenly be punished by a West Ham breakaway. Yet, having replaced Smith with the speedy but erratic Darren Huckerby, the more likely outcome was a decisive second goal. Certainly Kewell deserved elusive reward.

Almost inevitably, though, West Ham got a chance in the 80th minute and would surely have equalised were it not for a magnificent low stretch across the goal-line by Martyn to turn a fiercely struck free-kick by Frank Lampard round the post for a corner. West Ham immediately decided that they could still retrieve something.

The arrival of Joe Cole gave them nimbleness and options in attack, and finally Leeds were clinging on to a victory that should have been a formality against a side suffering their sixth successive away defeat.

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