O'Leary stays locked on Leeds' final push

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The Independent Football

Corruption and intrigue in Italian football were once as timeless and familiar as the Yorkshire rain, but neither the Milan nor Leeds United camps would give any credibility yesterday to allegations that Barcelona had offered the Italian club's players a financial incentive to beat Leeds here tonight.

Corruption and intrigue in Italian football were once as timeless and familiar as the Yorkshire rain, but neither the Milan nor Leeds United camps would give any credibility yesterday to allegations that Barcelona had offered the Italian club's players a financial incentive to beat Leeds here tonight.

Milan, who have already qualified for the second phase of the Champions' League, will ensure that the Catalan giants join them if they prevent Leeds from securing the draw which they need in order to advance to the last 16 and Barcelona account for Besiktas as expected.

The scenario had prompted suggestions in the Spanish press, followed up in Britain, of back-handers - as much as £60,000 per man - passing from Nou Camp to San Siro. Yet Alberto Zaccheroni and David O'Leary treated the claims with contempt as they prepared for the final push in Group H. The Milan coach refused to dignify the speculation by commenting, while the Leeds manager was only marginally more forthcoming.

"I honestly can't believe I've been asked that question," O'Leary said. "That's for Barcelona and Milan to answer. All I know is no one's approached us about anything."

But the Leeds captain, Lucas Radebe, who was a surprise addition to the squad after playing only 45 minutes in the past two months following a head injury, put the reports in a different perspective. "Things like this have no place in the game. You only have to look at what happened to cricket in South Africa.Hansie Cronje was caught cheating and now the public see the entire game as corrupt."

Whether the allegation is true or not hardly seems to matter; it would be important only if Milan had been offered money to lose. It must be a "first" in the European Cup for a team to be bribed to win. What the story may have succeeded in doing, though, is to stir the Milan dressing-room out of any complacency they may have felt. As Andrei Shevchenko, their Ukrainian centre-forward, put it yesterday: "We don't need any incentives. We already have our own pride."

As they proved by winning at Barcelona, Milan possess sufficient talent to beat a full-strength Leeds, let alone the semi-shadow XI O'Leary must field. The five-time European champions are unbeaten at home by English opposition in 10 games spanning four decades, whereas Leeds have yet to win in Italy in six attempts.

As well as the possible return of Radebe, Jonathan Woodgate and Danny Mills also travelled after injury. Mills is thought the only certain starter of the three, however, with O'Leary wary of Radebe's lack of sharpness and the possibility that Woodgate's muscle strain might be aggravated on a heavy pitch.

Meanwhile, having benefitted to an unusual extent from goalkeeping aberrations during the first-round fixtures, Leeds may be encouraged to learn that Milan are expected to prefer Dida to their first-choice keeper, Christian Abbiati. The butter-fingered Brazilian's inability to decide between catching and parrying Lee Bowyer's pot-shot gifted Leeds victory in their first meeting.

Alessandro Costacurta (knee) is definitely out, though Zaccheroni's injury problems pale next to O'Leary's. When Leeds drew 0-0 at Roma in the Uefa Cup in April, he was picking from a near full-strength squad, but the players who most impressed Italian observers, Nigel Martyn and Harry Kewell, are only two names on a lengthy casualty list.

From the Leeds perspective there has been something encouragingly patchy about Milan's form. They stand a mediocre 12th in Serie A with a solitary win from five matches, their second worst start to a domestic campaign in 15 years.

Zaccheroni, who proved himself a philosophical and dignified loser at Leeds, might not have survived but for Milan's superior showing in the Champions' League. The friction between the coach and the club's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, has reputedly been simmering since the late summer.

Milan, therefore, have no sound reason for playing against Leeds in the manner which Catalan paranoia supposedly envisages. Their line-up positively bristles with quality, from Paolo Maldini, who makes his 602nd appearance for the Rossoneri through Demetrio Albertini in midfield to the striking partnership of Shevchenko and Oliver Bierhoff.

Shevchenko and his burly German foil will present the sternest test yet of O'Leary's capacity for improvising with centre-back pairings (the one which finished Saturday's 4-3 defeat of Liverpool was his ninth this season). As long as he is able to field his first-choice attacking duo, the in-form Mark Viduka and Alan Smith, Leeds' 6,000-strong following could still witness a result to provoke bitter recriminations in Barcelona.

Milan (3-4-3; probable): Dida; Chamott, Roque Junior, Maldini; Gattuso, Albertini, Ambrosini, Serginho or Coco; Jose Mari, Shevchenko, Bierhoff.

Leeds United (4-4-2; probable): Robinson; Kelly, Mills, Radebe, Harte; Bowyer, Bakke, Dacourt, Matteo; Viduka, Smith.

Referee: K Milton Nielsen (Denmark).

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