No holding this hungry brigade

by IAN McGARRY, Daily Mail

Leeds United are not just hard to beat, they are hard to work out. How could a team who have been ravaged by injury and off-pitch upheaval, whose squad have just seven senior medals in total, propel themselves to the brink of greatness?

No matter what proof David O'Leary's side have offered to the football world as their credentials for making tonight's Champions League semi-final against Valencia, the question remains largely unanswered.

How did they make it through a first group stage which included Barcelona and AC Milan, and then a second in which they had to play Real Madrid and Lazio? They even had the audacity to put out Spanish champions Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter-finals and now they are just 270 minutes of football away from joining the ranks of legends.

The secret, however, is not that difficult and their manager is clear in his mind about what makes his team tick.

It has been 26 years since the great Leeds side of Norman Hunter, Billy Bremner and Peter Lorimer were beaten in the European Cup Final by Bayern Munich and nine years since they won the old First Division championship under Howard Wilkinson.

That kind of trophy famine leads to an appetite for success which needs to be sated.

O'Leary said: 'One thing they have, and I'll drive them on with it, is a hunger to win things. And I want to win things as a manager. If we get to the Final we would try to show that we have plenty of substance. I think they've got plenty and there's more to come and they'll only get better.'

At Elland Road tonight, they will have to give their best performance yet of what has been a stunning campaign.

Team spirit is their inspiration, and the manager who motivates them demands that each and every one fights for the collective good.

Valencia's Hector Raul Cuper has warned his players that with Leeds' esprit de corps, the team Valencia face tonight are more than capable of raising their game above superior rivals.

He said: 'The most important thing is their team spirit. They play as a block or force and it is that state of mind which can make them overcome opponents who have better technical ability than them.'

O'Leary learned the importance of forging a brilliant team rather than a group of good individuals from his days at Arsenal.

At Highbury, they believed they were invincible, at Leeds they are not allowed to think any other way. As such, the normal rules - such as enjoying the privileged moment of playing in a Champions League semi-final - do not apply. According to the book of David, win first, celebrate later.

O'Leary said: I won't tell them to enjoy the game because if you're grafting and working hard, and nearly giving yourself a heart attack in the process, then you don't enjoy that.

'The enjoyment comes afterwards in the camaraderie with the others who have grafted alongside you to achieve your victory.

'To me the best enjoyment is after you win a Final at Wembley or such-like and waking up the next morning and realising it's not a dream, that you actually have won it. They're the great feelings.'

Nigel Martyn, at 34, is acutely aware that time for him is running out to win the first significant medal of his career. Age is no barrier to membership of the Leeds glory club, though, and the England keeper shares the same ambition as younger team-mates like 20-year-old Alan Smith and 24-year-old Lee Bowyer.

He said: 'There's big togetherness among the players - great spirit. None of us had experienced this before and we weren't really sure what it would entail, but we've seemed to do well against every team we've met and cleared every hurdle put in front of us.

'I'm surprised. When we heard the first group included Barcelona and Milan we were very excited but honestly thought we'd struggle. The second stage was the same, with Real Madrid, Lazio and Anderlecht, yet we did it again.

'The pressure has increased now we're so close to the final. Experience-wise Valencia have an edge on us after reaching the Final last season but we'll give them a game and if we're good enough then we will win.'

Valencia have already played Manchester United in the group stage this season, before seeing off Arsenal in the quarter-final, and their skipper Gaizka Mendieta paid Leeds the ultimate compliment when he stated his belief that tonight, he will come up against the best team in England.

'I think that you only have to look at the fact that Leeds are in the semi-final of the European Cup to see that at the moment they are better than Arsenal or United,' said the Spain midfielder.

To progress, however, they must surpass not just the present, but the past as well. This is their greatest test.

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