Time is running out for Leeds United, on and off the pitch. With only eight days left to find a buyer or face the unknown perils of administration, they badly needed a victory over fellow strugglers to encourage potential investors in the belief that relegation can be avoided. But such a tepid performance did not deserve anything other than the defeat inflicted by a more inventive and composed Tottenham. It was a fourth successive loss in all competitions and left them five points from safety, the early promise of Eddie Gray's reign having now evaporated.
"We're battling hard behind the scenes," the chief executive and acting chairman, Trevor Birch, said yesterday. The least to be expected of the players is that they do the same, and Gray was rightly critical of them when he said: "We didn't show enough confidence and courage to play. It's the first time since I came back that we've been really disappointing from the word go."
With two of the squad's real grafters, Alan Smith and David Batty, absent, Spurs won most of the individual battles. What little potency Leeds carried in an uneventful first half disappeared at the interval when Mark Viduka went off; his father is seriously ill and the player returns home to Australia today. There is no guarantee he will be back in time for Saturday's game at Southampton, for which the captain, Dominic Matteo, is suspended. In the current predicament, there was also an air of predictability about a former hero, Robbie Keane, striking the decisive blow.
Even the latest name being touted as a potential saviour, the retail millionaire Philip Green, turns out to be a Tottenham supporter. Leeds sources are not holding out any greater hope in that area than in the Chinese investors reported a while ago to be interested in reducing debts of £81m. A more obvious target is to extend the 19 January deadline until the transfer window has closed, which would prevent Manchester United and others making offers that could hardly be refused for the crown jewels among the playing staff.
Spurs' problems pale in comparison, and this third successive victory ought to inject greater confidence into their away performances, starting with the FA Cup tie at either Leicester (where they have already won in the League) or Manchester City. After their second-string defence had proved less porous than Birmingham's in a 4-1 win last Wednesday, David Pleat brought Anthony Gardner and the combative Mauricio Taricco back into it. That enabled Ledley King to revert to midfield, where some younger legs were badly needed: Michael Brown from Sheffield United will be available to add some more from next week, and with Giovanni Trapattoni certain not to arrive until after Euro 2004 - if at all - Pleat and Chris Hughton have to aim for a period of stability until the season's end.
"Once we got in front we showed a lot of ability," Pleat said. "There's still a lot of work to be done, but it's something to work on." What he could do with now is for Helder Postiga or Bobby Zamora to make an impression in the absence of Frédéric Kanouté, who was playing his last game before controversially heading for the African Nations' Cup with Mali. It did not increase sympathy for Kanouté that BBC's Football Focus yesterday showed an interview with him from 2001 pledging his allegiance to France.
Leeds will lose two players, Salomon Olembe (Cameroon) and Lamine Sakho (Senegal), who played a part yesterday. For a while Olembe's looked as if it might prove influential, but like the Arsenal loanee Jermaine Pennant on the other flank, he soon faded.
Viduka might have hoped to have a second striker up alongside him for once, but had to make do with the former Spurs man Nick Barmby playing just off him in a first Premiership start for 10 months. Both of them, and then Viduka's replacement, Michael Bridges, found the going hard against dogged defending by Gardner and Gary Doherty. The latter also provided Spurs' most promising moment before the interval with a firm header from Darren Anderton's corner that Paul Robinson held.
The London side were much the brighter after half-time, and Keane, having offered a warning with a sharp drive beaten away by Robinson, enlivened the game with a goal. Taricco made it by clipping the ball into the inside-left channel, where the Irishman took one touch to control it and another to beat Robinson as he fell under Michael Duberry's challenge.
Gray responded by sending on James Milner and Sakho in an attempt to lift the dispirited crowd as much as the team. Chances were still rare, Bridges wasting the best one by jabbing weakly and wide when left unattended at Pennant's corner. Before the end, an injury to Duberry reduced Leeds to 10 men, and even their normally vocal followers appeared to have lost heart as Taricco and Kanouté came close to increasing the lead. There were boos at the final whistle from supporters who must now be fearing what 2004 will hold.
Leeds United 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 35,365Reuse content