Leeds get top marks for chase

 

Tracking Manchester United in the Premiership must be akin to chasing Istabraq up the hill at Cheltenham, tiring and verging on the irrelevant. But Leeds United are still there, trying to match Manchester stride for stride.

Ultimately it looks a vain chase, but Leeds continue to earn praise for the persistence of their skilful challenge. In a one horse race they aren't doing badly.

Yesterday it was their turn to worry the faithful with an early and unexpected nosebleed. It came courtesy of Jason Euell's fierce header after only one minute and 52 seconds but Leeds's recovery was swift, decisive and, it could be argued, made in Ireland. Within 38 minutes of Euell's opener Stephen McPhail's left foot had created two goals for the Norwegian Eirik Bakke and Ian Harte had converted another penalty.

Though Wimbledon rallied a little after the interval and the under-used Michael Hughes made his ninth substitute appearance of the season, the contest had faded before half-time. Harry Kewell's goal came seven minutes from the end, by which stage play was elongated and the visitors' defence was exposed.

"We take risks with the ball and without the ball," said Wimbledon's manager Egil Olsen. He knows the club is gambling with survival in the process.

Wimbledon, now without an away win since the victory at Watford on the first weekend, lack the intensity of the club's former outfits and are doubtless grateful to Derby County and Bradford City for continuing to struggle.

Wimbledon still have to travel to Bradford but Wimbledon's 15th consecutive season in England's top flight may be guaranteed by the three points they will fancy collecting when Sheffield Wednesday go to Selhurst Park.

But the confusion over the Norwegian owners' intentions are plaguing the club. The uncertainty has coincided with, and perhaps partially caused, a run of indifferent results. Olsen, though, spoke with quiet confidence about the immediate future. "I think the team spirit is quite good and I think we will avoid relegation," he said, this despite receiving Euell's second written transfer in a week and Leeds's £5 million bid for Carl Cort. Cort must have thought he had already made the move, handling the ball for the Harte penalty.

Leeds face equally important battles ahead. The next side here are Chelsea, followed by Arsenal, with trips to Leicester and Aston Villa in between. Afterwards David O'Leary said all that could be said about the title race. "I don't know how we'll do but we'll try to win every game. We're young and we're learning in the front line. At the start we were sleeping but we didn't panic. We're a better side than Wimbledon but you have got to go out and do it. We did it today."

O'Leary then laughed off suggestions from Alex Ferguson that O'Leary would be an ideal candidate as his replacement at Old Trafford. "A load of rubbish," O'Leary said.

But it is a measure of O'Leary's achievement at Leeds that Ferguson even mentioned his name and Olsen felt yesterday that Leeds were the strongest opposition Wimbledon have encountered this season. That was without David Batty, Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, the latter having tweaked knee ligaments against Slavia Prague here on Thursday night. Fortunately for Leeds, after Euell had powered Wimbledon in front, Bakke and McPhail made up for the absence of others with their presence of mind.

Neil Sullivan had already made two fine saves from Kewell as Leeds responded to Euell's effort with style and gusto, but when McPhail carved out a path for Bakke in the 24th minute, Sullivan was beaten by Bakke's nonchalant flick. Four minutes later Cort handled David Hopkin's corner and 12 minutes after that McPhail's low cross from the left was again met by Bakke. This time Bakke nipped in front of Robbie Earle and sidefooted past Sullivan.

Both his goals had been slickly taken, prompting O'Leary to call him "buy of the season" and Bakke will have derived increased pleasure as his father was part of the Norwegian consortium which bought Wimbledon two and a half years ago. Bakke is rapidly approaching cult status at Elland Road and was given a standing ovation when substituted five minutes before the end.

Two minutes earlier Kewell scored in his fourth game in a row. Wimbledon, pressing forward, were hurtling backwards as Kewell latched onto Alan Smith's short pass. Chris Willmott got back in time but Kewell sidestepped inside him and cracked the ball low past Sullivan. There was a feeling of futility about the Wimbledon defender's chase, a feeling which, thankfully, has not gripped Leeds United.

Leeds Utd: Martyn, Kelly, Haaland, Radebe, Harte, Bakke (Jones 85), Hopkin, McPhail, Wilcox, Kewell (Huckerby 84), Bridges (Smith 64). Subs Not Used: Robinson, Duberry. Goals: Bakke 23, Harte 28 pen, Bakke 39, Kewell 83.

Wimbledon: Sullivan, Cunningham, Ardley, Willmott, Kimble, Euell, Earle, Cort (Badir 46), Gayle, Andersen, Lund (Hughes 65). Subs Not Used: Blackwell, Heald, Andresen. Booked: Earle. Goal: Euell 2.

Referee: A Wiley (Burntwood).