United have the last laugh as Leeds lose again

 

The ending of Leeds United's run of 12 straight home victories surely also ended any lingering speculation about the job security of Aston Villa's manager John Gregory.

Gareth Southgate, a man for whom the 1990s will inexorably be linked with missed penalty kicks, opened the new decade in more fruitful fashion with both Villa goals. This was a deserved away success against the Premiership leaders, on what may prove a pivotal day in the title race.

"All the other results went for us," said the Leeds manager David O'Leary, "but the team that will laugh most is Manchester United in Brazil - and they have been the yardstick all along. When you don't play well at home you still want to pick up a point, and we could have come off the pitch with at least a draw."

O'Leary had previously suggested that Leeds's to-be-rearranged match against United at Elland Road should be reserved until the last game of the season. The chances of it being a title decider receded yesterday, and the manner in which Leeds failed to cope with an injury and suspension list that denied them Lucas Radebe, Lee Bowyer, David Batty, David Hopkin and Stephen McPhail may offer an uncanny comparison with the plight of Villa 12 months ago.

Gregory believes his team's capitulation last season, in which they won just four of their final 17 games having led the league at the turn of the year, was the result of a lack of depth in his squad.

"Even a club like Manchester United would find it pretty hard to lose their entire midfield," O'Leary offered in mitigation. "But you are judged over a season and, as I have said all along, I don't know where we will finish.

"United are the best team in the league and that's a fact. We're trying to do our best but it's a young side, and today it was a really, really young side."

Such naivete - a characteristic O'Leary is so fond of telling you he also possesses as a manager - was exposed at the two set pieces that brought Southgate his first Villa goals since December 1998.

In the 19th minute his goal-bound header from a Paul Merson corner struck his teammate Julian Joachim on the back, only for Southgate to scramble it into the net with a fortunate mishit.

Then, just after the hour, Merson's free-kick found Southgate eluding Jonathon Woodgate at the back of the Leeds area to score with a stooping header.

"He's known as The Ornament," said the tirelessly entertaining Gregory. "He goes up for every corner, every free-kick and becomes, well, an ornament! He never touches the ball so he was an unlikely match winner, to say the least."

In between Southgate's efforts, Harry Kewell conjured a superb individual equaliser 11 seconds into the second half. The Australian chested down a loose ball just inside the Villa half, played it off his knee and sent a 35-yard half-volley screaming past the despairing David James.

But, with the driving mechanism effectively removed from Leeds's engine, O'Leary's team failed to capitalise against a Villa side who were themselves lacking Ian Taylor and Dion Dublin.

Indeed, it took a staggering double save from Nigel Martyn to prevent the scoreline embarrassing Leeds further. He kept out Merson's header from Steve Watson's cross with an acrobatic one-handed leap, before somehow deflecting a follow-up strike from George Boateng over his bar.

Another Villa absentee, of course, was Gregory himself, currently serving a touchline ban that has coincided with an impressive run of 10 points in four games.

"I think it has been beneficial - the players certainly like it," said Gregory of his exile in the stand. "It is something more intelligent managers than me do anyway, and something I'll continue with."

Leeds: Martyn; Kelly, Duberry, Woodgate, Harte, Jones (Wilcox 76), Bakke, Haaland, Kewell, Smith (Huckerby 76), Bridges. Subs not used: Mills, Hiden, Robinson. Booked: Duberry, Harte. Goal: Kewell 46.

Aston Villa: James; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry, Watson, Merson, Boateng, Stone, Wright, Joachim, Carbone (Vassell 80). Subs not used: Draper, Ghrayib, Calderwood, Cutler. Booked: Merson, Carbone, Boateng, Watson, Vassell. Goals: Southgate 19, 62.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).