Leeds United’s Champions League campaign was up and running by the time Besiktas came to Elland Road, but Besiktas was the night when Leeds United arrived.
Their first fortnight in the competition passed in an emotional flurry – a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Barcelona followed by a win over AC Milan in which Dida fumbled Lee Bowyer’s shot into his own net – but six unanswered goals against Turkey’s runners-up made David O’Leary think that his players had the measure of Europe.
Besiktas were the key opponents in United’s first group; the club who Leeds had to prise points from to guarantee a chance of progression. But O’Leary’s opinion of them changed markedly after they thrashed Barcelona seven days before their visit to Elland Road.
Two weeks in, a section which Barca and Milan were tipped to dominate had been thrown wide open. “Everyone expects Milan and Barcelona to qualify and I understand why,” O’Leary said. “But you shouldn’t think that the other two teams are whipping boys.”
At Elland Road, Besiktas were exactly that. With Eirik Bakke fit and Leeds at full strength, a massacre ensued on the night of September 26, 2000. Bowyer – a talisman for the duration of United’s time in the Champions League – set the tone of the evening on seven minutes, sprinting in ahead of a crowd of defenders and side-footing Ian Harte’s cross into the net.
“It was important that we got at them straight away,” O’Leary said. He could not have asked his players for more immediate aggression. Four minutes later, Besiktas’ backline stood stationary and idle, hoping for an offside flag, as Gary Kelly hooked the ball in from the right and Mark Viduka bounced a header beyond Ike Shorunmu in the visiting goal.
The Turkish side wore shell-shocked looks as the tie got out of hand. In the 22nd minute, Olivier Dacourt whipped a short corner into the box and Alan Smith’s attempted shot gave Dominic Matteo time to work the ball around Shorunmu and slip it into the net. Dacourt hit the woodwork before the interval gave Besiktas an opportunity to get their act together.
There were chances for the visitors at the start of the second half, two of note for Ahmet Dursun, but Besiktas’ poise and conviction had been exhausted by their rampant defeat of Barcelona. The loss of possession outside their own half gifted Leeds an opening which Bakke finished off from 18 yards on 65 minutes, and Huckerby turned in a fifth goal after Besiktas left Viduka to plant his head on Bowyer’s corner and failed to attack the rebound.
Huckerby’s finish came in the 89th minute but Leeds were reluctant to call it a day. Bowyer made himself another goal by robbing a tired Besiktas side deep inside his own half, spreading possession out to Huckerby and then racing in at the back post to turn home a tap-in. The finish was easy; the 50-yard run which made it possible was awesome.
Fourteen years ago this week, the night as a whole struck the right notes for O’Leary. Leeds finished it at the top of their group and four players scored their first goals of the season, including new signings Mark Viduka and Matteo who between them had cost United £10m.
“Given that goal difference could decide the section, it’s an important result,” O’Leary said.
“Nights like this don’t come around very often and all I can say is that I’m starting to enjoy the Champions League.”