Leeds' indomitable spirit deserves lucky break

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The Independent Online

A flood of almost Biblical proportions greeted spectators as they emerged from the 1-0 win over Milan, which kick-started Leeds United's Champions' League campaign. A week earlier, Leeds had been out of their depth in Barcelona. Suddenly they were waving not drowning after a dramatic turn in the Group H tide.

A flood of almost Biblical proportions greeted spectators as they emerged from the 1-0 win over Milan, which kick-started Leeds United's Champions' League campaign. A week earlier, Leeds had been out of their depth in Barcelona. Suddenly they were waving not drowning after a dramatic turn in the Group H tide.

Besiktas' 3-1 victory over Barcelona means that all four clubs have three points. While the result in Istanbul serves as a warning about the Turkish side's potential as dark horses, it should encourage Leeds to believe that Rivaldo and company, who also lost in Bilbao on Saturday, are eminently beatable away from the Nou Camp.

David O'Leary's team will not have the opportunity to test the latter theory until their penultimate first-round fixture on 24 October. Whether they will enter that match, let alone the visit to Milan a fortnight later, with qualification for the second phase still a "live" issue, depends on the outcome of back-to-back meetings with Besiktas in the meantime.

Leeds receive their fellow "makeweights" next Tuesday, with the return scheduled for 18 October. Maximum points would leave them in a position which looked fanciful after the damage in Catalonia. However, their European record under O'Leary, which includes wins in Moscow and Munich as well as a draw in Rome, suggests that such an outcome is within their capabilities.

Just as the roller-coaster nature of the competition left Leeds scant time to regroup after Barcelona, so Besiktas' imminent arrival (not to mention Saturday's trip to Derby) allows Leeds inadequate scope for savouring the defeat of Milan. Given the circumstances, it must rank as one of the club's finest results on the continental stage since Torino were vanquished 35 years ago.

No matter that Lee Bowyer's 89th-minute goal was gift-wrapped by Dida, the Brazilian international goalkeeper, whose butter-fingered fumble of the slippery ball had older Leeds followers recalling Gary Sprake's reign of error three decades ago. Nor that the official Uefa statistics revealed Leeds to have mustered only a third of the number of shots on goal by their opponents, and a solitary corner compared with six for Milan.

What the fact compilers could not convey was the indomitable spirit which Leeds rediscovered. Despite the unavailability of seven internationals, and the enforced inclusion of Dominic Matteo and Eirik Bakke when they were short of match-fitness, they were quick to close down Milan and to harry their opponents even when tiredness began to set in.

A crowd which similarly regained its voice and tolerance after booing Leeds off the previous weekend immediately warmed to Matteo. The former Liverpool utility man enjoyed an accomplished debut considering he had been able to join in full training only once in five weeks since his £4.5m transfer.

Leeds' front two of Michael Bridges and Alan Smith showed a voracious appetite for work, yet if any unit typified their resilience it was the makeshift defensive duo of Michael Duberry and Danny Mills. Duberry is fast re-establishing himself after a patchy first season. Mills, despite playing out of position and enduring some anxious moments, made the tackle of the night to thwart Andrei Shevchenko.

Even the Milan coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, was struck by Leeds' "courage and conviction", although he will doubtless come under pressure to explain why his expensively assembled team seemed to settle for a point against under-strength hosts.

Leeds, after such an injury blighted opening month to the season, can justifiably argue that they deserved their lucky break. The heavens open and a hellish run ends; no wonder O'Leary rolled his eyes skywards and gave thanks to a higher authority.

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