In a month when David O'Leary had reason to worry about the sagging confidence of Leeds United's players, it suited him perfectly to collide with a club whose self-belief was shot to pieces.
Manchester City 0
Leeds United 4
Saturday, January 13, 2001
O'Leary made no attempt to disguise the negative effect of a mediocre run over Christmas but he could not hope to claim that his problems were on a par with Manchester City's at the start of 2001.
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A 4-0 victory at Maine Road punished a Premiership side who were clearly on their last legs.
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City's performance against Leeds was an apology for top-flight football, convincing their supporters that a return to the first division was almost inevitable.
Leeds were as vulnerable as they had been for many weeks, without a league win in three previous matches, but O'Leary was able to see the difference between a short-term loss of momentum and a total loss of direction and purpose.
"That'll do our confidence the world of good," he said. "My only hope now is that we move up the league quickly and become a threat again.
"The product we have here is so talented that eventually we're going to get going. We're not a bad little team at all – even if I have to take my medicine a little bit this season."
City would take more than their medicine before the end of the season, falling eight points short of safety, and uncertainty was evident among their players when Eirik Bakke scored in the 31st minute.
A scuffed free-kick from Andy Morrison on the edge of his own box dropped weakly to Jason Wilcox who in turn invited Eirik Bakke to score from 10 yards. The Norwegian did so without hesitating.
The match was as scrappy as it was tense and most of the crowd of 34,288 felt like watching through their fingers. Alfie Haaland, the former Leeds winger, forced Paul Robinson to spill a powerful shot in the second half and Paulo Wanchope almost turned the rebound into the net, but Haaland listened to chants of 'Alfie, Alfie what's the score?' from the away end. He hung his head in suitable fashion when Leeds scored 10 minutes from time.
City were looking desperately for a reprieve of any sort but, with the game increasingly stretched, their defence imploded.
Mark Viduka sealed United's win by fighting his way into City's box and laying on a tap-in for Lee Bowyer, and Robbie Keane struck a third for good measure in injury-time. City believed their punishment was complete but the club's backline fractured once more, making way for Keane to arrive at the near post and smash Bowyer's corner past Nicky Weaver.
City had been able to stomach a 5-2 defeat to Leeds on the same ground 12 months earlier, a wound sustained in the FA Cup while they were edging towards promotion from Division One. Their 4-0 loss was far less palatable, as manager Joe Royle bitterly admitted.
"The one crumb of comfort is that other results didn't hurt us," he said. "But the goals were typical of what's been going on here all season. We have to tighten up."
O'Leary was more upbeat, saying: "Our league position is disgraceful but we'll come out of this stronger. As a coach, I have to say that the season's been enjoyable."
United: Robinson, Mills, Ferdinand, Radebe, Matteo, Bakke, Dacourt, Bowyer, Wilcox, Smith (Keane, 71), Viduka. Subs (not used): Martyn, Harte, Woodgate, Batty.