Leeds put a tempestuous last few days behind them to produce a battling display on the Costa del Sol in this Uefa Cup third-round first leg. Their manager, Terry Venables, and his under-performing players have been under severe pressure in recent weeks, having been criticised for a number of inept displays which have belied the talent in the team.
Last night, though, they dug deep into the reserves of spirit that Venables has long said exists within the squad to produce a defiant goalless draw in the face of strong pressure from the Spanish side.
Venables named his strongest possible line-up but, with Leeds injury-hit, he had only six players on the bench rather than the seven permitted by Uefa. Out were Mark Viduka, Danny Mills, Dominic Matteo, Olivier Dacourt, Lucas Radebe, Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson, while Teddy Lucic and James Milner were ineligible – the latter as he is too young.
Michael Duberry was given only his second start this season, with the centre-back also playing in the 4-1 second-round second-leg victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv in Florence, while Ian Harte returned at left-back after missing the last two games with a calf injury.
Malaga unsurprisingly started on the front foot, producing three incisive raids in the opening five minutes. But then a mistake on the edge of his own area by Fernando Sanz in the ninth minute gave Leeds their first chance. Jason Wilcox fed Alan Smith and, having scored five goals in his last three games, the 22-year-old looked set to score, only for his powerful drive to rebound off the legs of Pedro Contreras.
A Harry Kewell cross from the left had too much pace for the arriving Smith as Leeds grew in confidence. But then a Jonathan Woodgate foul on Marcelo Romero just before the half-hour mark midway inside the Leeds half led to an unnecessary bout of pushing and shoving between a number of players, with Smith unsurprisingly involved. That must have caught the attention of the Italian referee Alfredo Trentalange for, within a minute, after Smith had been brought down by Romero, he earned a caution for stupidly pushing over the Uruguayan midfielder.
There must have been consternation on the Leeds bench moments later when Smith and Contreras went for a 50-50-ball, with Smith lunging into the challenge. Fortunately there was no contact and, although Contreras went to ground holding his leg and a baying crowd demanded Smith's dismissal, the goalkeeper had only fallen awkwardly.
Just two minutes into the second half Paul Robinson made his first notable save from Julio Dely Valdez's miscued shot. Malaga made a double substitution, Edgar replacing Manu Sanchez and Koke on for Iznata, but Leeds continued to hold firm. After surviving a penalty appeal, a Kizito Musampa cross then ballooned up off Harte and appeared to be heading goalwards, only for a relieved Robinson to clutch the ball to his chest.
"I thought it was a good result," Venables said. "I thought we made a lot of chances in the first half. We played very well and didn't sit back. They pushed us back but they are a dangerous side. It's always nice to keep a clean sheet."
Malaga: Contreras, Roteta, Fernando Sanz, Valcarce, Romero, Josemi, Iznata (Edgar, 62), Manu (Koke, 62), Sandro, Musampa, Dely Valdes. Substitutes not used: Rafa (gk), Rojas, Litos, Miguel Angel, Leko.
Leeds United: Robinson, Kelly, Duberry, Woodgate, Harte, Bowyer, Bakke, McPhail, Wilcox, Smith, Kewell. Substitutes not used: Martyn (gk), Bridges, Okon, Burns, Richardson, Kilgallon.
Referee: A Trentalange (Italy).