McPhail exploits the loss of Leboeuf

Chelsea squander early chances before French defender's dismissal allows Leeds to regain pole position
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Football may be the glamour game but when it comes to winning championships, grit remains more important than glitz, and points continue to be awarded for goals rather than artistic impression.

Football may be the glamour game but when it comes to winning championships, grit remains more important than glitz, and points continue to be awarded for goals rather than artistic impression.

These truths have rarely been more evident than yesterday afternoon at Stamford Bridge when Leeds United, despite being outplayed for most of an hour by Chelsea, returned to the top of the Premiership with a performance of resilience and composure. In doing so they probably ended Chelsea's hopes of a first title in 45 years and it showed.

While David O'Leary's young side - nine were under 22 years of age - struck twice through Stephen McPhail, Chelsea's thirtysomethings lost their heads, with Frank Leboeuf being dismissed. The Frenchman, twice booked for fouling Harry Kewell, also stamped on the Australian and argued with the referee, Jeff Winter, and David O'Leary, the Leeds United manager, before being hustled down the tunnel. It was his second dismissal in successive seasons against Leeds. Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea's manager, said: "He deserved to be sent off. I might be angry at him but if there is anything to do it will be done privately."

Vialli added: "We lost our heads after creating so many chances and then seeing Leeds score with their first shot. It will be difficult now to win the League but we have to finish as high as possible to qualify for Europe next year."

O'Leary repeated the usual blarney about being "a naïve young manager" with "a naive young side" but added: "They won't be scared to win the title. They get turned on by being top."

That was confirmed by the 19-year-old Jonathan Woodgate, who added: "We're top for Christmas and I'd like to think we can stay there, we've got it within the side to do so."

No one will doubt their credentials now. Chelsea may have dropped to 10th in the table, and 12-1 with the bookies, before this game but Leeds knew this would be a real test of their credibility. Arsenal may have won at Stamford Bridge but Manchester United had been humbled 5-0. In Europe, too, Chelsea had shown just how good they can be when they want to and there was little doubt that they would be up for this match. The mutual loathing that characterized these sides three decades ago has resurfaced and their previous four encounters had produced 28 yellow cards and three red.

It did not take long for the 29th caution to be issued, just over a minute. After Dennis Wise left Lee Bowyer in a heap within seconds of the start the Leeds midfielder got up and, in a move heavy with symbolism, took his gloves off and threw them to the bench. In the next passage of play he confirmed his intent by stamping on Wise's foot. An obvious yellow, Bowyer's 10th of the League season, and a clear example of why he is still to be selected for the England squad.

For the next hour Wise showed why he is in it with a display of the midfield arts that thoroughly eclipsed his younger opponent. His passing, movement and tackling were impeccable and he even hit the box on a regular basis.

It helps, of course, to be playing alongside Didier Deschamps, who underlined again that a brace of European Champions' Cup medals has not diminished his desire. With Roberto Di Matteo and Gus Poyet in support, and Leeds clearly missing David Batty, Chelsea ran the midfield for long periods.

But the old failing, their inability to take their chances, bedevilled them. With Leeds defending well - Woodgate was outstanding - clear chances were few but there were enough. Nigel Martyn made good saves from Leboeuf and Albert Ferrer, but Poyet shot over, and Wise headed over, from good positions while a string of shots went wide.

Leeds had only sporadically threatened, with Kewell finding Ferrer a more difficult opponent than the full-backs he normally encounters, but Michael Bridges had tested Ed de Goey from 20 yards.

Throughout these exchanges the contest had continued to simmer, and it threatened to boil over when Bowyer (who else) carried on playing despite Marcel Desailly being injured on the edge of the area. However, Mr Winter, whose excellence was shown by both managers' suggestions that he favoured their opponents, largely kept the lid on.

Desailly went off with a dislocated shoulder but the pattern remained unchanged, Martyn denying Wise and Di Matteo shooting wide. Then, with half an hour to go, Vialli made a change that was to have unforeseen repercussions. He brought on Gianfranco Zola for Tore Andre Flo but, four minutes later, with Leboeuf having been booked in the interim for fouling Kewell, Jes Hogh went down with a hamstring injury.

With Flo off and Chelsea needing victory Vialli eschewed the usual option, of moving Chris Sutton to centre-half, and instead reshaped the defence. It was still settling down when, two minutes later, Kewell attacked down the right only to be tripped by Leboeuf. With the ball running to Bowyer, Winter played the advantage, allowing the midfielder to pull the ball back neatly for McPhail to score his first Premiership goal.

It got worse for Chelsea as Leboeuf, having tripped Kewell again, was dismissed. The 10 men kept going forward but the game had gone with their heads and McPhail's freak second, from a free-kick on the right, was merely a detail.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly (Hogh, h-t; Petrescu, 64), Leboeuf, Harley; Poyet, Di Matteo, Deschamps, Wise; Flo (Zola, 57), Sutton. Substitutes not used: Morris, Cudicini (gk).

Leeds United (4-3-3): Martyn; Kelly, Woodgate, Radebe, Harte; Bowyer (Jones, 84), Bakke, McPhail, Kewell; Huckerby, Bridges (Wilcox, 50). Substitutes not used: Mills, Duberry, Robinson (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Booked: Chelsea: Leboeuf, Wise, Di Matteo. Leeds: Bowyer, Harte, Kelly. Sending-off: Chelsea: Leboeuf.

Man of the match: Woodgate.

Attendance: 35,106.