Midfielder Mark van Bommel stood in defence of Leeds United after the club’s elimination from the UEFA Cup pushed manager David O’Leary to the brink of no return.
“Leeds are better than Manchester United,” said van Bommel, a telling influence in PSV Eindhoven’s fourth-round win, a tie they secured 1-0 on aggregate.
“Manchester may have the best squad in Europe but all the Leeds players impressed me.”
His comments played to the Elland Road crowd but few of them were interested in favourable platitudes after an 89th-minute header from Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink ended United’s pursuit of European silverware.
Leeds, the better side throughout, succumbed to a scrambled goal at the death and the image of Dominic Matteo punching the ground in frustration told the story of their entire season.
O’Leary was under severe pressure and the club’s campaign was virtually over by the beginning of March. All that remained for the United boss to chase was Champions League qualification and even that looked hopelessly unrealistic.
“It’s going to be tough for my players to come back from this,” he said. “Only time will tell how well they finish the season.”
Leeds were in a steady position ahead of the second leg at Elland Road after holding PSV to a goalless draw in Holland.
O’Leary was disappointed by the stalemate after seeing chances come and go and the return fixture followed a similar plot.
Eirik Bakke missed two glaring opportunities in the early minutes and Harry Kewell let Eindhoven off the hook by lashing the ball over an empty net with PSV’s goal gaping.
The visitors created little in reply and Leeds keeper Nigel Martyn was a spectator until the hour mark when he dived to palm Mateja Kezman’s shot to safety.
It reminded the crowd of the threat of an away goal and the atmosphere inside Elland Road grew tense. PSV exploited the mood skilfully and began to press, forcing Leeds into fraught and last-ditch defending.
When Lucius skipped into the box in the penultimate minute of normal time and looped a shot against the bar, Vennegoor of Hesselink reacted first to bundle the ball over the line.
PSV coach Eric Gerets revelled in the victory, saying: “In the first half Leeds were the better team but in the second half they looked tired.
“They gave us more space and we used it extremely well. I feel we deserved to go on and win.”
Eindhoven turned their attention to a quarter-final clash with fellow Dutch side Feyenoord as O’Leary picked the bones from an unmitigated disaster.
“This is the way our season is going,” he said. “It’s the same old story for us but I wish PSV well.”
For Leeds, their failure to reach the latter stages of the UEFA Cup compounded their failure to begin the season with a place in the Champions League.
The financial implications for the Elland Road club were beginning to bite.
Speaking before the second leg against Eindhoven, chairman Peter Ridsdale said: “We set our stall out at the beginning of the season to get into the Champions League so if we don’t manage to do that it would be disappointing.
“But if someone said to me ‘you can win the UEFA Cup’ then I’d settle for that.”
In the end Ridsdale was left with neither prize.
United: Martyn, Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo, Harte, Kelly, Bakke, Bowyer, Kewell, Smith, Viduka. Subs (not used): McPhail, Wilcox, Duberry, Batty, Burns, Keane, Robinson.