O'Leary's options limited by injuries

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The Independent Online

Leeds United passed through customs into Catalonia yesterday with nothing to declare but the injury curse that has stalked them all summer. On the eve of their opening fixture in Group H of the Champions' League, against the might of Barcelona in the Nou Camp Stadium tonight, a fresh setback for Jason Wilcox reduced David O'Leary's squad to the bare bones and forced a strategical rethink.

Leeds United passed through customs into Catalonia yesterday with nothing to declare but the injury curse that has stalked them all summer. On the eve of their opening fixture in Group H of the Champions' League, against the might of Barcelona in the Nou Camp Stadium tonight, a fresh setback for Jason Wilcox reduced David O'Leary's squad to the bare bones and forced a strategical rethink.

Wilcox, who returned to the Leeds side as a late substitute in Saturday's stalemate at Coventry after three months on the treatment table following knee surgery, had been pencilled in by O'Leary to start on the left of midfield. The former Blackburn winger was expected to provide width, balance and crosses in what would probably have been a 4-5-1 formation. On Monday, however, came evidence that someone at Elland Road, to use the footballing vernacular, must have been bonking a witch. With no one near him, Wilcox stumbled to the turf after taking a shot during training. His left ankle is broken, ruling him out for a further eight weeks.

The absence of the unlucky Wilcox, who had to pull out of the England squad only weeks before Euro 2000, leaves O'Leary with little option other than some variation on 4-4-2, which he had abandoned in favour of a system featuring three strikers.

"With so few players to chose from," the Leeds manager said, "It becomes a straightforward choice in terms of personnel and tactics. To us, losing Kewell, Woodgate and Bakke is like Manchester United being without Stam, Keane and Cole. When you come to the big stadium you need your big players."

O'Leary was already deprived of five internationals as well as the injured Dominic Matteo. Whereas the weekend form of the great Brazilian Rivaldo means that Barcelona's new coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, may well leave Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Kluivert on the substitutes' bench, Leeds' line-up looks certain to include a 19-year-old, Alan Smith, plus two players, Stephen McPhail and Matthew Jones, who are 20.

To put the threadbare nature of O'Leary's resources into perspective, his own back-up options include an Australian, Jacob Burns, and a New Zealander, Danny Hay. Neither has kicked a ball in first-team football on this side of the world. It is a far cry from 1975, when Leeds contested the second leg of a European Cup semi-final here. Their ranks littered with the famous and infamous names of the Don Revie era, they earned a 1-1 draw to edge past Johan Cruyff and co into the final.

Only one of the 21 English sides to visit over the past four decades, Liverpool in 1976, have ever overcome the red and grenadine stripes in this soundtrap of Catalan nationalism (although Leeds did beat VfB Stuttgart at the venue in a play-off eight years ago). Nevertheless, Manchester United and Arsenal drew here in the previous two campaigns, while Chelsea were within seven minutes of knocking Barcelona out last spring before the roof fell in.

Barca's semi-final defeat to Valencia prompted a summer of upheaval. The coach, Louis van Gaal, and the president, Josep Luis Nunez, were replaced respectively by Ferrer, a former Real Betis coach, and Juan Gaspart, whose place in the fans' folklore was assured when he fulfilled a promise to jump into the Thames if the club beat Sampdoria at Wembley to lift the 1992 European Cup.

Real Madrid exploited the uncertainty created by the changes by buying Luis Figo, but Ferrer has invested heavily in new recruits, among them Petit and Marc Overmars for £30m from Arsenal. He also placated his principal remaining asset, Rivaldo, with a pay-rise that took him to £85,000 a week.

O'Leary has studied the video of Barcelona's opening Spanish League game, a 2-1 win over Malaga in which Rivaldo, in a new, deep-lying role, scored twice. The Irishman may instruct Jones to stick close to Rivaldo, as he did manfully when Brazil won in Wales. Leeds will also pay heed to the Portuguese winger Simao, who reputedly makes Overmars look slow.

"We have to be honest and admit we could really get a drubbing," said O'Leary. "Spirit got us through in Munich [against TSV1860] but that alone doesn't do the business at this level. This is my favourite city and they are my favourite club, so I'd love to be coming here with the missing players and taking them on. Because my brand of football is the Barcelona one: to attack."

Tongue-in-cheek job application over, the job in hand awaits. Lowering expectations is O'Leary's speciality. Against the mellifluous football of which Barcelona are capable, it will be harder than ever for Leeds to exceed them.

Barcelona: (3-2-3-2; probable): Dutruel; Abelardo, De Boer, Sergi; Gerard, Cocu; Simao, Rivaldo, Overmars; Alfonso, Dani.

Leeds United: (4-4-2; probable): Martyn; Kelly, Duberry, Radebe, Harte; Bowyer, Dacourt, Jones, McPhail; Smith, Bridges.

Referee: M Merk (Germany).

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