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Leeds United 1 (Bakke 22)
Malaga CF 2 (Dely Valdes 13, 79)
Thursday, 12 December 2002
We head into the festive period a tantalising second place in the table, the glimmering hope of promotion on the horizon. Marcelo Bielsa has made us dare to dream of a return to previous glories, but that also makes us look back. This is our fifteenth season outside of the top flight and sixteen years since our last European match. That game was against Malaga in the UEFA Cup on 12th December 2002. United season had already been pretty miserable but plumbed new depths as they crashed out of the UEFA Cup, casting immediate doubt over the future of Manager Terry Venables.
After holding Malaga goalless in the away leg United must have started favourites to progress to the next round. There was heartbreak for Michael Bridges, who had been hoping for a long run after his two seasons of injury misery, fell in a crumpled heap with no Malaga player near him and was carried off. His career was effectively ended. Robbie Fowler took his place for the rest of the game.
Worse was to follow as Malaga took the lead in the fourteenth minute with their first attack on goal, as their winger skipped past Danny Mills as if he was non-existent to cross for the striker to beat Paul Robinson from close range. Leeds needed to show aggression to get back in the game, but Lee Bowyer was lucky to only see yellow, after clearly stomping on the head of a grounded Malaga player. He was placed on a UEFA Report and was subsequently suspended.
There were no innocent parties in the game and a show of weak refereeing only served to ignite an already explosive situation. Malaga were allowed to get away with murder, but United only had themselves to blame. There was an improved display in midfield from Lee Bowyer, Eirik Bakke, Paul Okon and Jason Wilcox but Danny Mills, Jonathan Woodgate, Gary Kelly and especially Michael Duberry were woeful in defence and could not cope with the Malaga front-runners. With Lee Bowyer and Jason Wilcox posing United’s biggest threat down the flanks, it was fitting that a fine Jason Wilcox run and centre picked out Robbie Fowler at the far post, who unselfishly played the ball into the path of Eirik Bakke, who volleyed the ball into the net on twenty-three minutes.
Leeds were clearly in the ascendancy and Malaga seemed content to disrupt United’s rhythm with a succession of petty fouls or theatrical tumbles, with private battles cropping up all over the pitch, and off the ball niggling reaching epidemic proportions. Malaga with the benefit of an away goal only required a draw to progress. It became increasingly obvious that United did not have the necessary craft to score again and it came as no surprise that Malaga scored ten minutes from time to put the tie well and truly out of United’s reach, as Jonathan Woodgate was turned inside out by the Malaga striker. United had meekly bowed out of the UEFA Cup.
When Peter Ridsdale sacked David O'Leary in the previous summer he famously noted that the UEFA Cup was no place for Leeds United. His views were given an added poignancy as Leeds crashed out of the competition at the hands of Spanish side Malaga. It had deprived the club of some much-needed revenue and left Terry Venables' future hanging by a thread. There were boos at the final whistle, but they were muted compared to other weeks and even the most embittered United fan would have to have conceded that Terry Venables was hardly getting a fair crack of the whip at that time.