Leeds take heart on return to Turkey

Champions' League: Gracious welcome for David O'Leary's side but United manager's sense of diplomacy seems to be missing
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The Independent Football

There was no ring of steel or gauntlet of hate, no gruesome running of fingers across throats and not one voice raised in anger yesterday as Leeds United returned to Turkey's footballing capital for tonight's Champions' League tussle with Besiktas.

There was no ring of steel or gauntlet of hate, no gruesome running of fingers across throats and not one voice raised in anger yesterday as Leeds United returned to Turkey's footballing capital for tonight's Champions' League tussle with Besiktas.

Six months after the fatal stabbings of two of their supporters 24 hours before a Uefa Cup semi-final first-leg game against Galatasaray, the only ambush awaiting Leeds' players and officials at the airport was by the Besiktas representatives bearing bouquets of flowers. And the only clamour came from excitable press men and camera crews.

Later, as Leeds trained under the lights of the scenic Inonu Stadium, near the banks of the Bosphorous, the relative calm was eerily reminiscent of the spring evening when David O'Leary and Eddie Gray put the same squad through their paces at Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen Stadium.

It was only later that night that they learned of the killings of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight in Taksim Square. The news stripped any lingering vestige of credibility from the threadbare old Shanklyism about football being more important than life or death.

"Nobody on our side was in the mood to play that game," O'Leary recalled last night. "After what had happened, it had become meaningless. It wasn't until half-time that we woke up to the fact that we were in a European semi-final."

Besiktas's veteran Italian coach, Nevio Scala, had earlier suggested Leeds would struggle to put the events of April out of their mind. However, O'Leary claimed he did not sense any trepidation among young players enriched by the experience of 17 European matches in 13 months.

"It might have been difficult if we had been coming back to Galatasaray," the Leeds manager said. "But my chairman [Peter Ridsdale] has struck up a good relationship with the Besiktas president [Serdar Bilgili] and we tried to make them welcome at our place."

This mutual goodwill is not the only reason to believe that the road to good intentions will not be paved with Hell, to use the word beloved of Galatasaray fans. Leeds will have barely 200 followers here and they do not arrive until the afternoon, whereupon they will be taken to the ground by a slow, alcohol-free boat.

The absence of potential distractions should, in theory, leave Leeds free to concentrate on exploiting the defensive weakness of opponents who surrendered six goals without reply at Elland Road last month, and on cementing their position as surprise leaders of Group H.

O'Leary realises that a team capable of humbling Barcelona 3-0 in their previous home fixture will be no pushovers. Yet, coming from a man wont to lower expectations, it was indicative of Leeds' confidence when he added: "The way I've worked it out, four points from three games will see us through to the second phase. For us, that would be like winning the competition.

"After getting hammered at Barcelona - where you can't expect to win when you're without seven players - we've turned the group around. I didn't expect to beat Besiktas by as many as we did. But that result counts for nothing now and, if we'd lost like that, we'd be desperate to put things right."

Leeds' unrelenting injury crisis means that, less than three months into the campaign, O'Leary has already used 23 players compared with 20 last season. The latest casualties are Olivier Dacourt, whose place will probably go to Stephen McPhail, and Nigel Martyn.

Paul Robinson, who used to clean Martyn's boots, fills them tonight in his first start for 17 months. The England Under-21 goalkeeper's eighth taste of first-team action comes, moreover, at the start of a period which could be pivotal to Leeds' trophy prospects.

Even if Martyn is out for a month at most, as the best-case scenario has it, the Beverley-born Robinson will face not only the Turks but also Manchester United, Barcelona, Liverpool, Milan and Chelsea, with a derby at Bradford for good measure. "Paul will eventually take over from Nigel at this club," O'Leary said. "He's got the potential, though only time will tell."

Jonathan Woodgate also makes his Champions' League debut, while Michael Bridges is likely to return for the suspended Alan Smith alongside Mark Viduka. Besiktas, meanwhile, have been hit by a three-match ban on their French striker, Pascal Nouma, and a subsequent injury to his understudy, Fazli Ulusal.

Besiktas (3-5-2; probable): Shorunmu; Khlestov, Umit, Mehmet; Karhan, Münch, Ayhan, Tayfur, Ibrahim; Nihat, Ahmet Dursun.

Leeds United (4-4-2; probable): Robinson; Kelly, Woodgate, Mills, Harte; Bowyer, Bakke, McPhail, Matteo; Bridges, Viduka.

Referee: J Wegereef (Netherlands).