Leeds United’s Champions League campaign is rightfully remembered and looked back on with great fondness.
After all, reaching the semi-final of Europe’s elite club competition represents a high point in the club’s recent history.
Less spoken about is how Leeds’ domestic form tailed off in the midst of that stunning run.
By the time January rolled around Leeds had only two away victories to their name. Admittedly injuries had taken their toll throughout the campaign but it was not the sort of season to follow up Leeds’ third place finish the previous year.
The loss against Newcastle United on January 20, 2001 put Leeds in 12th.
Leeds managed an improvement in the second half of the campaign, and one game worth highlighting in the run that saw them ultimately finish fourth was the away trip to Aston Villa.
David O’Leary’s team had not managed to beat Villa in any of their previous five encounters, which did not bode well for the Whites.
The game got off to a bad start for Leeds and it looked unlikely that they would end their bad run against the Midlands side. It took until the 24th minute for the deadlock to be broken. Gareth Barry sent over a cross from the left-wing. It was flicked on by Ian Taylor into the path of Paul Merson, who put the ball past Paul Robinson to give Villa the lead. His calm, right-footed half -volley into the bottom corner demonstrated the class in front of goal Merson had throughout his career.
Oddly enough, it was Villa’s first goal in the league since their visit to Elland Road, a span of 386 minutes.
They were soon pegged back by Leeds, who took only four minutes to respond. Robbie Keane had been the scourge of Villa the previous season, scoring against them for Coventry City. This time around he provided the assist. Villa dropped deep, Keane dashed out to the left-wing before picking out Lee Bowyer with a bobbling pass that cut apart the defence. Despite the bouncing ball, Bowyer calmly side-footed his effort into the back of the net.
Leeds nearly went behind shortly after the interval, with future Whites flop Steve Stone hitting the crossbar after Robinson had made a fine save from a George Boateng shot.
However, it was once again Keane who had a telling impact on proceedings. Mark Viduka shimmied and shuffled on the left-hand side of the penalty area, turning a Villa defender inside and out. He then fired a cross into the six-yard box. Keane was waiting for it, but before he could get onto the end of the ball, Barry chose to hold back the Republic of Ireland international. Keane hit the floor and referee Steve Bennett had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Ian Harte, as he so often did, coolly dispatched the penalty, firing it into the bottom left corner of the net to give Leeds the three points.
Towards the end of the game it did not seem as simple as Harte’s goal. Merson once again showed his prowess in front of the net by beating Robinson, but Leeds had Lady Luck on their side at Villa Park.
This time the ball rebounded off the woodwork and Leeds escaped.
It was a win that lifted Leeds up to 10th in the Premier League and gave them hope for a brighter end to the domestic season.
Aston Villa 1
Leeds United 2 (Bowyer 28, Harte 75)
Premiership January 24, 2001
Aston Villa: James, Stone, Alpay, Staunton, Barry; Wright, Taylor, Boateng, Hendrie; Merson, Angel. Subs: Dublin, Ginola, Vassell, Delaney, Enckelman.
Leeds United: Robinson, Kelly, Woodgate, Ferdinand, Harte; Bowyer, Dacourt, Bakke, Matteo; Viduka, Keane. Subs: Martyn, Wilcox, Smith, Mills, Batty.