Youthful Leeds quick to learn Europe's lesson

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The Independent Online

During the dark days which Leeds United spent in the old Second Division, crowds at places like Shrewsbury and Oxford would be bemused by their supporters' self-mocking mantra of "Champions of Europe". When the cry was resurrected in the citadel of San Siro, it was bristling with bravado rather than black humour.

During the dark days which Leeds United spent in the old Second Division, crowds at places like Shrewsbury and Oxford would be bemused by their supporters' self-mocking mantra of "Champions of Europe". When the cry was resurrected in the citadel of San Siro, it was bristling with bravado rather than black humour.

David O'Leary's youthful side - average age 24 against Milan on Wednesday - remain unlikely to fulfil the claim, this season at least. Yet in securing their place in today's draw in Geneva for the second phase of the Champions' League with a 1-1 draw against the Group H winners, Leeds managed, in less than two months and at the first attempt, what both Manchester United and Arsenal took three campaigns to achieve.

Leeds' success was good news not only for themselves - their chairman, Peter Ridsdale, said yesterday that they now expect to make £20m from their Champions' League adventure and will add it to O'Leary's transfer war-chest - but also for the Premiership. By reaching the last 16 they opened the possiblity that England could have four entrants in the 2002-2003 season.

They went through, moreover, from a section which included two clubs who have earned the right to the title contained in the chant, Milan and Barcelona, amid an injurycrisis that would have broken less resourceful managers. The next stage begins the week after next, with another fixture early in December. In theory, the attacking talents of long-term casualties like Harry Kewell, Jason Wilcox and Michael Bridges will be available when the last four group fixtures start in March.

As roller-coaster rides go, Leeds' progress has made the American presidential election appear a paradigm of smooth running. Even in the preliminary round, against TSV 1860 Munich, Eirik Bakke and Olivier Dacourt were sent off with Leeds seemingly cruising at 2-0. The Germans went on to snatch a potentially priceless away goal deep in stoppage time.

Having prevailed in Munich, Leeds endured a torrid introduction to the tournament proper in Barcelona. A seriously depleted team lost 4-0 - going on 10-0 - to Rivaldo and co, with Lucas Radebe added to their injury list.

Leeds, however, have had all the luck that was going, good and bad. They promptly defeated Milan at Elland Road courtesy of Lee Bowyer's pot-shot and a bizarre goalkeeping gaffe in the penultimate minute (early drama by Leeds' standards) by the Brazilian, Dida. Besiktas, whose 3-0 victory over Catalonia's finest did Leeds a huge, unexpected favour, then furnished the Yorkshire club with four points, two of the goals in the 6-0 home win arriving in time added on.

Before the re-match with Barcelona, Nigel Martyn joined the walking wounded. Remarkably, another goalkeeping error, by Richard Dutruel, brought Bowyer another freakish goal, leaving Leeds a mere 85 minutes to hold out. That they did so until Rivaldo struck 20 seconds before the end of stoppage time was largely due to Martyn's deputy, Paul Robinson.

Leeds might have lost heavily but for Robinson's brilliance and the defiant defending of Jonathan Woodgate. The 21-year-old keeper's sustained good form has already seen him elevated to the full England squad after just 12 first-team starts and will make it hard for O'Leary to return him to the bench once the more experienced man is fit.

The most striking aspect of Leeds' performance in Milan, apart from the absence of last-gasp goals and a fierce determination to resist, was that they have learned quickly. Last season's run to the Uefa Cup semi-finals, when they knocked out sides like Roma and Spartak Moscow, meant they were not European virgins, as some had portrayed them.

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