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Throwback to Leeds United’s glory days: The Whites’ march to the semi-finals of the 2000-01 UEFA Champions League

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A throwback to Leeds United’s glory days: Reliving the Whites march to the semi-finals of the 2000-01 UEFA Champions League

The agonising tale of Leeds United’s dramatic downfall in English football since the turn of the century continues to be a burning topic of discussion amongst the football fans in West Yorkshire, with the Whites’ period of exile from the top-flight completing the 15-year mark at the end of the 2018-19 season. 

It looked as if the Yorkshire giants were finally going to be roused from their deep sleep by the Midas touch of manager Marcelo Bielsa, with Leeds operating in the upper reaches of the Championship for large quarters of this past season.

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The Whites were on top of the standings at one point of time and it looked for certain that they were going to announce their return to the mainstream of English football in an emphatic manner.

However, as we all know that it is a long and hard slog for each and every team in the second-tier, a poor run of form over the Easter period saw Leeds finish below the automatic promotion places, with Norwich City and Sheffield United securing the top-two berth.

A subsequent 4-3 defeat at the hands Derby County in the playoff semi-finals meant that Leeds’ surge for promotion came to nothing in the end.

Now, it is up to Leeds to put all that disappointment behind themselves and start right from the scratch next season, although that is hardly an easy thing to do.

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Rewinding to the time around the turn of the century, Leeds’ start to the new century wasn’t a bad one after all given that the Whites enjoyed a successful campaign on all fronts in the 2000-01 season.

Leeds might be a second-tier club nowadays but things at West Yorkshire were a lot brighter some fifteen years ago when the Whites used to finish in the top-four in the Premier League on a consistent basis and also compete in European tournaments.

The fans of the current generation are unlikely to have any memories of the club taking part in European competitions but they might as well have heard stories from the older heads about Leeds’ heroics on the European stage.

As a matter of fact, the Whites might currently be in oblivion as far as top-flight and European football is concerned but there are fans who surely still recall the success that David O’Leary’s side tasted in the 2000-01 UEFA Champions League.

Leeds were unable to build on their amazing European run though, and went on to compete in the UEFA Cup for a couple of more seasons before ultimately fading into obscurity following their relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2003-04 campaign.

Indeed, the financial crisis at the club was a matter of humiliation at that time and it tarnished Leeds’ image to a great extent.

However, it is definitely worth taking a walk down the memory lane and bringing back the memories of Leeds’ glorious run in the 2000-01 Champions League.

As Marcelo Bielsa and his side get their preparations underway for the upcoming Championship campaign, let us relive the European heroics of David O’Leary’s side from that particular season.

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Background

Michael Bridges’ 19 goals in the 1999-00 Premier League season propelled Leeds United to a 3rd-place finish in the league, just behind champions Man United and runners-up Arsenal.

As a result of that, Leeds secured an entry into to the third qualifying round of the 2000-01 UEFA Champions League. Only the top two teams in the Premier League used to secure qualification to the group stages of Europe’s elite club competition in those days.

As a part of their preparations heading into the Champions League, Leeds splashed the cash in the summer of 2000 and brought in a number of high-profile signings, including Olivier Dacourt from Lens, Rio Ferdinand from West Ham, Mark Viduka from Celtic and Dominic Matteo from Liverpool. Robbie Keane was also brought in on loan from Inter Milan in the winter transfer window.

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Qualifying Round

Leeds United were drawn to face German outfit 1860 Munich in the final qualifying round prior to the group stages of the competition and the Whites made it through after 180 minutes of neck-to-neck football over two legs. 

The first leg at Elland Road witnessed a tense, hard-fought encounter between the two sides, as O’Leary’s side secured a 2-1 victory to carry a clear advantage into the second leg.

Goals from Alan Smith and Ian Harte on either side of the halfway mark set the tone for Leeds and Paul Agostino’s 90th-minute strike proved to be nothing more than a mere consolation.

With the vital away goal in their pocket, a 1-0 victory at home would have been enough for Munich to guarantee qualification to the group stage. However, Leeds put up a resolute show at the back and kept the opposition at bay, with Alan Smith’s 46th-minute strike sending them through 3-1 on aggregate.

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First Group Stage

The Yorkshire giants were drawn in the group of death (Group H) together with continental heavyweights AC Milan and Barcelona, whilst Turkish giants Besiktas were in the mix as well.

Leeds didn’t have the best possible start though, as they kicked off their campaign with a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Barcelona at Camp Nou.

Goals from Rivaldo and Frank de Boer in the first half coupled with Patrick Kluivert’s brace in the second half sunk the West Yorkshire outfit and marked a dreadful start to the group stages.

They did, however, resurrect their campaign in their second game against AC Milan at Elland Road. Leeds showed plenty of character and resilience to stop their opponents from scoring and Lee Bowyer’s 89th-minute strike handed them a surprise 1-0 victory and a valuable three points.

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Up next for Leeds was a double-header against Turkish club Besiktas, the first of which was scheduled to be played at Elland Road.

O’Leary’s men were the favourites heading into the fixture and they hardly gave the opposition any breathing space, as the Whites romped home with an emphatic 6-0 victory. New signings Viduka and Matteo got their names on the scoresheet, while Bowyer once again starred with a brace.

Leeds and Besiktas played out a goalless draw in Turkey before the Whites played host to Barcelona at Elland Road towards the end of October. A repeat of that 4-0 demolition would have been anticipated by many but it proved to be a completely different story when the Whites played the La Liga giants at home.

Bowyer opened the scoring in the 5th minute and it looked as if Leeds were going to bag all three points, only to be denied by a last-minute equaliser from Rivaldo.

The Yorkshire giants went into the final group game at San Siro knowing that a draw would be enough to secure qualification to the next round, given that Milan had already booked their place in the second group stage.

The game finished 1-1, with Serginho’s second-half equaliser cancelling out Matteo’s strike at the halfway mark. Barcelona went on to thrash Besiktas 5-0 but Leeds finished second in Group H with 9 points. 

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Second Group Stage

Back in the days around the turn of the century, the last 16 format in the Champions League wasn’t a knockout round and it was known as the second group stage.

A draw was conducted to prepare four groups with four teams each, with each group consisting of two winners and two runners-up from the previous round.

Teams from the same country or from the same first-round group could not be drawn together and the top two teams from each group progressed to the quarter-finals.

Group A toppers Real Madrid, Group G winners Anderlecht and Group B runners-up Lazio were paired with Leeds United in the second group stage, draw which was expected to be extremely competitive.

As was the case in the first round, Leeds started off with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid at Elland Road, with goals from Fernando Hierro and Raul Gonzalez handing the Whites an early scare.

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They did, however, manage to get things back on track away from home against Lazio in their second game, as Alan Smith’s strike late in the fixture sealed three crucial points for David O’Leary side.

Leeds’ victory over the Lazio ensured that they went into the Christmas period with their European hopes still very much intact.

Following the winter break, Leeds played host to Anderlecht at Elland Road and the double-header against the Belgian giants was always going to go a long way towards deciding the Whites’ fortunes.

Leeds went a goal down, courtesy of Alin Stoica’s strike in the 65th-minute but they rallied on, and late goals from Bowyer and Harte sealed a remarkable 2-1 comeback victory to hand O’Leary’s side a massive boost heading into the reverse leg in Belgium.

The return leg in Belgium proved to be a rather one-sided encounter though, as Smith’s brace and goals from Viduka and Harte propelled Leeds to a comfortable 4-1 win, thus guaranteeing their progress to the quarter-finals.

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Leeds’ away fixture against Real Madrid early in March turned out to be an epic encounter, with both the sides going hammer and tongs at each other. Alan Smith’s 6th-minute opener was cancelled out by Raul’s goal in the very next minute before Luis Figo handed the Los Blancos a 2-1 lead going into the interval. 

Leeds found the equaliser through Mark Viduka’s strike in the second half but Raul’s 61st-minute winner proved to be the difference between the two sides as the game finished 3-2 in favour of the Spanish heavyweights.

The final game of the second group stage at Elland Road against Lazio proved to be an entertaining see-saw battle, although the game finished 3-3 and the teams shared the spoils.

Leeds finished as runners-up in Group D behind Real Madrid and booked their berth in the quarter-finals.

Quarter-finals

Leeds were paired to face Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna in the last-eight of the competition and the tie was expected to be anything but straightforward for the Yorkshire giants.

However, O’Leary’s men silenced their critics in the first leg at Elland Road, as Leeds romped home with an emphatic 3-0 scoreline and virtually sealed the tie in their favour heading into the second leg in Spain. 

Goals from Smith, Ferdinand and Harte handed the Whites a clear advantage but it proved to be a bit of an anti-climax in the reverse fixture away from home.

Having been completely outplayed by Leeds in the first game, Deportivo showed a lot more quality on their home turf and gave the Yorkshire outfit a big scare, as a penalty from Djalminha and a second-half goal from Diego Tristan handed the Spaniards a 2-0 victory.

Leeds failed to hit top gear in Spain but they progressed to the semi-finals with a 3-2 aggregate scoreline, nonetheless. 

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Semi-Finals

David O’Leary successfully guided Leeds United to their first European Cup semi-final since 1975 and the home tie against Valencia at Elland Road was always going to be a monumentous occasion for the fans.

However, Leeds never managed to score in the first leg at home, with them failing to convert several clear-cut chances in front of a raucous home crowd. The Whites left themselves with a lot of work to do in the away leg at Mestalla.

Given that the first leg had finished 0-0, Leeds knew that a 1-0 victory or even a 1-1 draw away from home would be enough to set up a final showdown with Bayern Munich. However, Valencia proved themselves to be a difficult opposition to overcome on their home turf and Leeds found themselves playing catch-up for the entire ninety minutes.

Juan Sanchez opened the scoring for Valencia in the 15th minute before the Spaniard netted his second of the night just after the interval to make it 2-0 in favour of the La Liga side. And Gaizka Mendieta’s strike just after a few minutes meant that Leeds had a mountain to climb. 

There was no fairytale comeback, however, from the Yorkshire giants and O’Leary’s side finally bowed out of the competition in the last four stage. Bayern Munich went on to register a penalty shootout victory over Valencia in the final and the Bavarian giants lifted the trophy at the San Siro.

Raul finished as the tournament’s top scorer with 7 goals, while Leeds duo Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith also found their names right up there with 6 and 5 goals respectively. The Whites failed to make it to the finals but their glorious run will always be a part of the history books at Elland Road. 

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