Ponderous Leeds are easy prey for swooping Eagle

Leeds United 0 Crystal Palace 2
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The Independent Online
With his flame-coloured crop, abrasive style and Scottish brogue, David Hopkin might have been born to inherit the mantle of Billy Bremner and Gordon Strachan as Leeds' captain. His successor in the Crystal Palace engine room, Attilio Lombardo, resembles nothing so much as a bank manager, yet it was Hopkin who endured the bad heir day at Elland Road.

Steve Coppell played down comparisons between Hopkin, whom he reluctantly sold for pounds 3.25m after clinching promotion, and Lombardo, lured from Juventus until 2000 for less than half that sum. The redhead and the millennium dome were, he argued, "totally different players".

However, if Saturday's snapshot proves representative of the broader picture, the Palace manager may have pulled off a deal comparable with Chelsea's capture of Gianfranco Zola.

Whereas Hopkin, typically of Leeds, looked ponderous in thought and deed, Lombardo glided over the turf in his free role. Under the scrutiny of an associate of Italy's manager, Cesare Maldini, the 31-year-old midfielder demonstrated a Zola-like economy of touch and facility for seeing the possibilities before opponents.

Both goals resulted from this vision. The prelude to the first was a microcosm of the match in that he was quicker to a 50-50 ball than Hopkin. The position was seemingly innocuous. Seconds later, a sweeping move ended with Palace's other major recruit, Paul Warhurst, heading in.

Warhurst, revealing glimpses of the form that earned an England call- up before the injury ravages of the past four years, repaid the compliment with a deftly cushioned header soon after half-time. Despite the attentions of two defenders and Nigel Martyn's reluctance to go to ground, Lombardo kept his poise to nip in the bud the revival Leeds were threatening.

George Graham deemed it "a wonderful goal", and admitted his remodelled team were comprehensively beaten by the better side. The Leeds manager's magnanimity echoed that of the crowd, who warmly applauded their tormentor when he left the fray.

Coppell, in contrast, appeared unduly determined to resist singing Lombardo's praises. "It's all very well being a nice player in August and September, but English football is about October, November, December and January," he said, sounding disappointingly like Alan Sugar doubting Dennis Bergkamp's resilience.

If, come February, people were still remarking on his contribution, Coppell would accept that he had "more than made his point". In fact, Lombardo has spent his career in Genoa and Turin - "oop North" in the Italian context - so he should be no more averse to wintry conditions than the southern softies in Palace's squad.

He is evidently keen to be considered "one of the lads". Although Coppell reckoned he had picked up only four words of English (the first, recalling Denis Wise's advice to Roberto Di Matteo that "f- off" was a friendly greeting, turns out to be an insult starting with "w"), Lombardo may be a faster learner than he suspects.

Conducting a painstaking post-match interview via an interpreter, a question about targets encouraged him to parliamo inglese: "Not to get relegated - and to score more goals." With two already, he is on course to beat his best haul in Serie A, eight for Sampdoria.

According to Graham, Leeds are "back to square one". Not quite: they at least created chances, rather than seeking to grind out the goalless draw which became a grim trademark last winter. Too often, though, they pumped the ball long towards a lightweight front two, playing into the hands of a Palace guard eye-catchingly marshalled by Marc Edworthy.

For a downcast Hopkin, tomorrow's visit of Liverpool offers an instant opportunity to show he has more in common with his illustrious predecessors than simply ginger hair. His strength, as evinced by what his former manager called a "massive" 17 goals last season, lies in powering forward. Whether he can also supply the guile personified by Lombardo, for which Leeds are crying out, remains to be seen.

Goals: Warhurst (22) 0-1; Lombardo (51) 0-2.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn; Halle (Radebe, h-t), Wetherall, Molenaar, Robertson; Kelly, Bowyer (Haland, 73), Hopkin, Ribeiro (Kewell, 73); Wallace, Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Lilley, Beeney (gk).

Crystal Palace (3-5-2): Miller; Tuttle, Edworthy, Linighan; Muscat, Lombardo (Fullarton, 79), Roberts, Rodger, Gordon; Dyer (Freedman, 68), Warhurst (Shipperley, 75). Substitutes not used: Hreidarsson, Nash (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield)

Bookings: Leeds: Hasselbaink. Palace: Tuttle, Edworthy, Dyer, Linighan.

Man of the match: Lombardo. Attendance: 29,076.