Deportivo La Coruna fancied their Champions League quarter-final against Leeds United. In the mind of Victor, the club’s Spanish midfielder, there was no easier tie on offer in the last eight.
Victor rashly described Leeds as the weakest team in the tournament ahead of their two-legged clash in April 2001 but the humiliation was his as Leeds routed Deportivo 3-0 at Elland Road.
The crowd taunted him with chants of ‘3-0 to the weakest link’ but at the midway point of the tie, United manager David O’Leary was not about to make the same arrogant blunder.
With such a commanding lead, O’Leary was pushed to admit that the contest was as good as over.
“It’s only half-time,” he replied. “The important thing is not to go there and concede a goal. I’ve seen three-goal advantages wiped up before.
“I know people are jumping on my back for talking us down all the time but we’re a small, little club trying to do our best.”
O’Leary’s caution would prove to be well-founded. Deportivo, the reigning La Liga champions, flew home to Spain with their pride bruised and 13 days to lick their wounds. Leeds, however, were well aware of a game which had taken place at Estadio Riazor a month earlier: a 4-3 win for Deportivo in a Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain. PSG surrendered a 3-0 lead in the final 36 minutes.
“Clearly this tie isn’t dead and we’re not in the semi-finals yet,” said United midfielder Lee Bowyer.
“Deportivo score a lot of goals at home so we’re expecting them to come at us. But we’re always capable of scoring a goal ourselves. I reckon if we do that it’ll be all over.”
Before long, the second leg in Spain became a desperate game of survival for Leeds. Deportivo attacked United quickly and won a penalty in the ninth minute after Victor went down under a challenge from Harry Kewell. Brazilian Djalminha sent goalkeeper Nigel Martyn the wrong way from the spot.
The pressure was relentless but on the stroke of half-time, Leeds missed an opportunity to draw the sting from Deportivo’s display. A loose back pass ran straight to Alan Smith who rounded keeper Jose Molina but drilled the ball into the side-netting.
Deportivo continued to throw players forward after half-time and Martyn produced an alert save to Enrique Romero’s shot onto his crossbar. Roy Makaay also rattled the frame of the goal with a thumping header and Leeds finally buckled 16 minutes from time when Diego Tristan turned home a free-kick from close range.
His finish teed up an almighty onslaught but United held out to reach the semi-finals of Europe’s leading competition for the first time in 26 years.
“It’s an unbelievable achievement and it’s all down to the players,” said an ecstatic O’Leary.
“Let’s not kid ourselves – nobody expected us to get to the semi-finals. We play Valencia now and who knows over two games. I’m delighted we’re through.”
Bowyer was more open about United’s chances of lifting the European Cup.
“There’s a feeling we can definitely win it,” he said. “We can score anywhere and we can win anywhere. We’re capable of beating anyone in a one-off game.”
Deportivo La Coruna 2
(Djalminha pen 9, Tristan 73)
Leeds United 0
Champions League semi-final, second leg, April 17, 2001
Deportivo: Molina, Pablo, Romero, Naybet, Silva, Djalminha (Valeron 69), Fran, Pandiani (Flores 79), Victor (Tristan 62), Donato, Makaay.
Leeds United: Martyn, Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo, Harte, Bowyer, Dacourt, Batty, Kewell (Bakke 77), Smith, Viduka.
Referee: Stefano Braschi (Italy).