O'Leary's cautious attitude to record chase

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The Independent Football

THERE ARE reasons to admire Leeds United, including their commitment to young footballers, but they went up in the estimation of many neutrals this week by the simple expedient of turning out their first team. Not for them the assumption that the Worthington Cup is too piffling for their proper attention, nor the arrogance that gives higher priority to a testimonial.

THERE ARE reasons to admire Leeds United, including their commitment to young footballers, but they went up in the estimation of many neutrals this week by the simple expedient of turning out their first team. Not for them the assumption that the Worthington Cup is too piffling for their proper attention, nor the arrogance that gives higher priority to a testimonial.

As injustice would have it, the third round tie against Blackburn Rovers was the sort you would send your worst enemy to, but Leeds deserved their fortuitous 1-0 victory if only because their line-up bore some resemblance to the XI who will turn out against Sheffield Wednesday at Elland Road today. And, rest assured, their will be no doubt about commitment from either side.

Leeds and Sheffield normally go at each other like starving dogs, but the home side will equal a 68-year-old club record if they complete their ninth successive victory, while Wednesday are spurred on by fear and encouragement. They are still bottom of the Premiership but have scored nine goals in their last two games.

In football, success can breed caution, failure wild optimism, and in the build-up the managers were pulling in opposite directions. Leeds' David O'Leary spends so much time bringing everyone down to earth he ought to be an airline pilot. "I've said that trophies have never been handed out in October," he said yesterday. "We have a long way to go."

Contrarily, Wednesday's Danny Wilson has been inflating everything in the hope of restoring blighted confidence. "Psychologically, that first three points of the season was a massive shot in the arm for us," he said. "It was as if we were shaking off the shackles that had restricted us."

Another club who might have a confidence blip are, oddly enough, Manchester United. This week alone they have lost to a World XI, an Old United XI and Aston Villa, and while you can query the commitment in all three there was nothing phoney about their 5-0 rout at Chelsea two weeks ago. Add that to other disappointments and the last time they won in the League was at Liverpool on 11 September.

Ryan Giggs returns from his annual lay-off with a hamstring injury and, with Watford as the opponents at Old Trafford, the result will be a formality. Or so they also thought on the Kop when Graham Taylor's team went to Anfield and emerged with a victory.

Chelsea also paid the penalty for fielding a weakened Cup team and you can be assured that the side that attempts to improve a record of one point in six visits to Anfield will today bear little resemblance. If Chelsea win their games in hand they will overtake Leeds at the top, but they would prefer to meet Liverpool when they are not stinging from defeat at Southampton. Some teams take the Worthington Cup for granted, Gérard Houllier had taken it as Liverpool's best route into Europe and was sorely disappointed.

He could be sorely abused, too, if his team lose, because the patience he has been asking for will begin to run out at a fourth home defeat out of five. "Chelsea represents a good game to bounce back and redeem ourselves," Houllier said. There are some who remember opponents having to do the redeeming after visits to Anfield.

Liverpool's one home success came against Arsenal, a result that caused Arsÿne Wenger to wonder out loud whether his side could win the championship this time. The Frenchman believes he can afford to lose only four Premiership matches this season and with barely more than a quarter of the programme completed the Gunners have already recorded three.

Like Chelsea and United, Arsenal are in the Champions' League this week and while Wenger concedes that European success will cement the club's position at the highest level, he does not want it at the expense of the Premiership. He reinforced that view as his team prepared to play host to a resurgent Everton.

"Winning the top prize in Europe is probably the only thing missing from Arsenal's history," he said, "but the mark of a top club is also how they perform year after year in domestic competition."

At the lower end of the table the outstanding match is between Wimbledon, fourth from bottom, and the team immediately behind them, Bradford City. Normally in these situations you would plump for the home team but as the Dons have not won a League game at Selhurst Park for more than a year, maybe not.

At least Wimbledon defeated Sunderland there in the Worthington Cup in midweek, which was a vast improvement on Bradford's performance at home against First Division Barnsley. "If we feel sorry for ourselves or get down about things then we will be in trouble," said their manager, Paul Jewell, which underplays the difficulty they are in already. A defeat today and it will be worse.

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