By Joe Behan
Leeds United, Arsenal and Manchester United represent the EPL in Phase Two of the Champions League. David O’Leary’s five-year goal to model and match Manchester United’s youth policy and status is way ahead of its time. To be in the company of Real Madrid, Lazio and Anderlecht in the last 16 of the Euro elite league is invaluable experience that will close the gap on Manchester United.
The fantastic draw Leeds had last week against AC Milan in the San Siro stadium ousted the Spanish giants, Barcelona, who had walloped Leeds 4-nil in the opening game of the competition. Plagued with injuries and the bad memories of last year’s tragedies in Europe, Leeds battled on in their group and that thumping by Barcelona was the only loss they had in the first round. This young side has shown great character and confidence is growing by the game.
Over the weekend, Leeds had yet another tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and it was the in-form Mark Viduka who scored in the 62nd minute. The Aussie, the second highest in the premier with 11 goals, is proving to be a striking addition to Elland Road. Keeping things solid at the back is Lucas Radebe, one of the best defenders in the premier.
Of course, O’Leary continues to blame bad referees for goals against and that for his young and naive team to win it would be a miracle. Who is he kidding? Here is last Sunday’s lineup against Chelsea: Robinson, Kelly, Mills, Radebe, Harte, Bowyer, Bakke, Dacourt, Matteo, Viduka (Huckerby, 77), Smith.
Leeds are at home to West Ham this weekend and O’Leary will want his side back in the top flight. The Yorkshire squad is expected to be at full strength toward the end of the year with the likes of Harry Kewell and Stephen McPhail available for the latter games in their Champions League Group of Death II.
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Said Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale: "We said it would be a miracle to get this far and we were all dreaming about playing Real Madrid and going back to Rome again after playing in the Olympic Stadium in each of the last two seasons — so we have got our wish. But I think there will be a few teams in Europe worried about coming to Elland Road after our performances this season. It would be great to have a Manchester United-Leeds final, but I think I am probably dreaming at the moment."
The Gunners came through the champions league first round with style in the form of Thierry Henry, who was a handful of trouble for the opposition in most games. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who is building a new look at Highbury Road, will be happy with his group, which consists of Bayern Munich, Spartak Moscow and Lyon.
While the French grinch was angry at Arsenal’s seemingly immaterial 3-nil loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in the last Champions League game of the first round, his reactions are now understandable after his side tied nil-all with Derby. It was bad enough to draw at home against a team with only 7 points without a victory in 15 games, but it’s letting Man. Utd. open a two-point lead that causes French fury. Nevertheless, Wenger was still able to find equal terms with his Red rivals.
"When Manchester United keep winning, a draw feels like a loss to us," he said. "But you have to look at United as well. They had a blip against Chelsea after they played in Kiev."
The Gunners are away to Everton this weekend and the blues are capable of coming up with some creative football that can challenge Arsenal.
Arsenal vice chairman, David Dein, made his club’s ambition very clear when he said: "Our aim is to win the Champions League. We will do our best, but it won’t be easy. It is never easy at this level, but we think we have a good side. The last time we played Spartak we lost 8-4 on aggregate, so we have something to prove."
Man. Utd. positive
Teddy Sheringham scored a 17th-minute strike to give United a must-win victory against Dynamo Kiev in their last game of the first round in the Champions League. It was nerve-racking stuff for the Red Devils when Kiev sub George Demetradze missed an open goal with only five minutes left. It was down to the wire for both the United teams to go through and Manchester has certainly lucked out with an easier second-round group, at least on paper, that is. Ferguson faces Valencia, Sturm Graz and Panathinaikos in Group A.
During the qualifying games, United were exposed on too many occasions, but at the same time they let in the least number of goals and scored the most in their group. The outstanding Sheringham has popped up on a consistent basis to pull results out of the bag for United. The newborn striker did it again over the weekend against Middlebrough.
Entering the game off the bench and in less than 15 minutes, Sheringham ruined Boro’s hopes of a great and badly needed victory. The October Player of the Month delivered a performance full of intelligence and, of course, the winner.
United have not quite hit the form that’s expected of them, but the EPL’s leading marksman, Teddy Sheringham, is the figurehead in the United team at the moment. If Roy Keane steps up to the plate, the Ferguson machine could be unstoppable. United will need both players in full swing to compensate for the weakest part of the team, that being the defense.
Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon was delighted with the Champions League draw. "It is a very good draw, a good grouping for us," he said. "You have to say it is a positive draw for United. You look how we qualified, it went down to the last game and almost the last five minutes. We are not at all complacent, but given the overall quality of the opposition, we take any team seriously."
Group B in the Champions League is made up of AC Milan from Italy, Deportivo La Coruna from Spain, French side Paris St. Germain and Turkish champions Galatasaray. It’s great to see that two of the EPL teams that qualified for the Champions League are captained by Irishmen, Gary Kelly and Keane.
They are not the only leaders making headlines as Ipswich climbed into sixth place with an inspirational goal from yet another club captain and Irish International, Matt Holland.