"weakest team" remaining in the Champions League remarkably had
one foot in the semi-finals of the biggest club competition in
the world after destroying Deportivo La Coruna with a display
of fearless and high pressure football.
Deportivo midfielder Victor had claimed before this quarter-final
first leg that Leeds United were the weakest of the eight clubs
left in the competition - but not for the first time in this most
remarkable of seasons a large slice of humble pie was duly eaten.
Leeds had already proven over the course of what manager David
O'Leary had so often hailed as his side's "wonderful adventure"
that they had no respect for big-name reputations as Barcelona,
AC Milan, Lazio and Anderlecht could testify. All had fallen by
the wayside, while Leeds marched on, playing their flowing game
which had seen them becoming quickly feared on the continent -
and they again showed their style against the reigning La Liga
champions. That had been Deportivo's first Spanish title in their
92-year history, with Real Madrid having finished five points
adrift in second. But this was their worst defeat of the season
as O'Leary's stars shone on another European night of glory at
In the four games against Barcelona and Real Madrid in the two
previous group stages, Leeds had lost three and drawn one, giving
rise to Victor's jibes. In the group stages Anderlecht coach Aime
Anthuensis had criticised Leeds after his team's 2-1 defeat at
Elland Road in February and provoked a devastating reaction -
Leeds had won 4-1 in the second leg - and Victor now likewise
had done O'Leary's pre-match motivation for him.
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In the run in to the game Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale had described
it as the club's most important since the 1975 European Cup final,
and in the pre-match press briefing O'Leary had mused on the prospect
of reaching the last four of the competition, "I can't believe
I'm actually talking about this." In the end it was a night to
savour for all connected with the club.
The Leeds team showed one change to the side that had beaten
Sunderland the previous weekend, with Dominic Matteo replacing
the injured Lucas Radebe and record buy Rio Ferdinand captaining
the team for the first time in the absence of the South African.
Midfielder Lee Bowyer made another late dash from his trial in
Hull to take his place in the team. The full line up of Martyn,
Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo, Harte, Bowyer, Dacourt, Batty, Kewell,
Smith and Viduka was the one that was to see Leeds so successfully
through the remainder of their season.
Deportivo had to do without two of their Brazilians, Mauro
Silva and Donato, but were still able to field a formidable side,
including the other Brazilian, Djalminha, just behind Dutch international
Roy Makaay in attack.
Deportivo arrived at Elland Road with a reputation for a composed,
patient passing game and in the opening minutes they underlined
such claims as they stroked the ball around the pitch. They threatened
early through a Romero burst down the left, which was superbly
halted by Ferdinand, and a Djalminha shot from the edge of the
area which flew wide of Nigel Martyn's left hand post.
However, from the moment Ian Harte cracked a swerving 25-yard
left-foot shot which Francisco Molina initially spilled before
claiming the ball at the second attempt, it was all Leeds.
Harte then provided a brilliant 40 yard dipping crossfield ball
from left to right for Lee Bowyer, just inside the area, with
the midfielder looking to become the tournament's outright leading
scorer. The 24-year-old should have added to his tally of six
goals, having timed a burst of real pace to swerve behind Romero
after an initial chest trap. A proficient touch took him away
from covering defender Cesar, but goalkeeper Molina raced out
to produce an excellent block at point-blank range.
The Leeds pressure had rattled the Spaniards and it showed. Emerson,
last seen fleeing Middlesbrough, was booked for a foul on Olivier
Dacourt, an offence which ruled him out of the return leg.
Mark Viduka and Alan Smith had been leading the defence from
the front, muscling and hustling their way round the Spaniards.
It was Smith's determination not to relinquish the ball on the
edge of the area that led to the opening goal. Cesar conceded
a 24th minute free-kick when he manhandled Smith to the floor.
And Harry Kewell caused enough havoc in the wall to create an
opening for Harte to deliver a vicious left-foot thunderbolt over
the head of the outstretched fingertips of Molina for his eighth
goal of the season and his fourth in Europe. The ball had been
delivered with such power that Molina scarcely moved.
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Leeds never looked back as they tore up the Yorkshire turf. Molina's
immobility had characterised the performance of manager Javier
Irureta's players, as Leeds had stifled their invention with a
fierce and relentless tempo, closing them down and snapping at
their heels. Kewell, absent for many of Leeds' European games,
was an ever present threat down the left. In one sensational move
in the opening quarter of an hour, he slid past one defender,
jinked around another and was unlucky to slice the final shot
narrowly over the bar. And Frenchman Olivier Dacourt was rampant
snapping up any remotely loose ball and unleashing a series of
sweeping passes. Both players were involved in Leeds' second goal,
which came only five minutes after the restart.
The score had the best of Leeds stamped all over it. First Viduka
hassled the ball from the Deportivo centre-half, allowing partner
Smith to rattle a raking right-foot shot on goal. Molina just
managed to tip the effort wide. But Leeds won the resulting corner,
Dacourt feeding Kewell who hit a first-time cross right onto the
head of Smith. The 21-year-old buried the ball for his 15th goal
of the season, his seventh in Europe, and his sixth in six matches.
Fittingly, it saw him draw level with former great Peter Lorimer
in the list of the club's leading scorers of European goals. Lorimer
scored in Leeds' previous European Cup quarter-final outing -
against Anderlecht in 1975.
Harte was unlucky not to get his second with a second-half free-kick
which he struck even better than his first-half effort, but the
curl of the ball took it fractionally wide.
Deportivo did not manufacture anything resembling a goalscoring
chance until the 55th minute but Makaay presented Nigel Martyn
with an easy save. But if the Spanish coach hoped that might signal
a revival for his shell-shocked players, he was wrong. Instead,
Leeds cranked up the pace even further before Ferdinand leapt
to power home a third goal on the hour mark.
The England defender could not have chosen his moment better
to score his first goal for the club, meeting Kewell's corner
with a meaty header. Second-half sub Valeron could only flick
the ball into the path of the £18million centre-back who headed
home his first goal in four years.
Tristan and Walter Pandiani, who both came on in the 71st minute,
almost came close to scoring an away goal in injury time for Deportivo,
but Leeds held on for the vital clean sheet. Martyn had one nasty
moment when he spilled a free-kick. But Dominic Matteo stepped
in to clear up the trouble. It was a fortunate break but if, as
the saying goes, you make your own luck, then Leeds deserved it
by the bucketload.
Manager David O'Leary was delighted with the super show by United
and said afterwards: "They were all heroes. I only pick the team
and they go out and do it. I'm delighted and so proud for them.
We played good football from the very start. For
a young side I thought they showed a lot of maturity and experience.
I'd have been delighted with that result before the game. I'd
have taken 1-0 to be honest, just as long as we didn't concede
an away goal.
"This is possibly the best night in Europe for us this season.
But it's only half-time and the important thing is not to go there
and concede a goal. I've seen leads like these turned round, PSG
got beaten there after leading 3-0 as we know. I know people are
jumping on my back for talking us down all the time.
"We've come a long way but we're a small little club trying to
do our best. Long may the adventure continue."
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