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O'Leary's Euro Headache - 18/11/00

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David O'Leary has achieved a remarkable job at Leeds this season, but qualifying for the second phase of the Champions League may prove a double-edged sword.

On the one side, Leeds will enjoy the glamour, prestige and financial rewards on offer. But, on the downside, there is the pressure of increased expectations and the likely damaging knock-on effects on the club's Premiership performances.

Leeds must be aware of the lesson so painfully learnt by Chelsea last season. For an hour the Blues ripped apart Barcelona in their quarter-final home leg last March, and looked potential champions of Europe.

But they went out in extra-time in the second leg, their subsequent league form fell away in the final weeks of the season and they failed to qualify for the Champions League. A few months later, they crashed out of the UEFA Cup to Swiss side St Gallen, a club few people in Britain had heard of

With the squad, wage bill and stadium at Stamford Bridge all geared up for Champions League football, it was an enormous blow for them not to be in Europe's elite competition.

The key point for Leeds to remember is that while they will want to go as far as they can in the Champions League this season, their priority is to ensure they are in the competition next year. There are two ways of achieving that.
One is to win it, which I believe is beyond them. The other is to finish in the top three - or possibly four - of the Premiership. And, at the moment, they have some ground to make up.

The top clubs are desperate for Champions League football because it is the only place to be. It is a vicious circle - clubs need their best players to get there but you need to be able to offer Champions League football to get the best players and to meet their wage demands.

If Leeds are to maintain their impressive progress they must make sure of being in the Champions League next season. Certainly, they deserved a kinder second-phase draw. Considering their early-season injury crisis, it was a magnificent achievement to come through a first group which included Milan, Barcelona and Besiktas.

They must have thought it could not get any harder, but now they find themselves pitched against the holders Real Madrid, Italian champions and Europe's biggest spenders Lazio, plus Belgian champions Anderlecht who beat Manchester United last month.

Leeds have experienced an incredible turnaround in their fortunes this season. After their first Champions League group game they were whipped 4-0 in Barcelona and a few days later they were booed off after losing against Ipswich, their second successive home league defeat.

But a club's season can often turn on one moment and the last-minute blunder by the Milan goalkeeper to allow Lee Bowyer's shot to slip through his hands and into the net gave them their first European point, and they have not looked back.

The second phase matches are going to be wonderful occasions for Leeds, but the worry for O'Leary is the mental and physical demands they will make on his young players. O'Leary said his players finished last season on their knees, and this time his youngsters face a similar 50-game schedule.

Even with a fully-fit squad, I don't think Leeds can sustain an attack on the Premiership and Champions League, which makes their achievements so far even more creditable.

Harry Kewell, their best player, has not kicked a ball for them this season, nor has David Batty, while Nigel Martyn, Michael Bridges, Lucas Radebe, Jason Wilcox and Eirik Bakke have had spells out.

On the plus side, the youngsters who have had to fill the gaps have acquitted themselves well and gained valuable experience, while the extra revenue from the Champions League will enable O'Leary to carry on improving his squad.

He has already made good investments in Mark Viduka and Olivier Dacourt. The 7million O'Leary paid Celtic for Viduka looks a bargain when one considers it is half what Chelsea paid for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who he is matching goal for goal.

I rated Dacourt when he spent a season with Everton and his combination of skill, steel and stamina is a vital ingredient in the Leeds midfield. Dominic Matteo's ability to play in several positions made him a useful signing from Liverpool.

Leeds confounded just about everyone by reaching the UEFA Cup semi-finals last season and coming through the first phase group in the Champions League this time, but the biggest test arrives at Elland Road on Tuesday.

Real Madrid are always formidable and tend to improve as the Champions League progresses. It promises to be a fascinating battle