Difference maker: How Chris Wood led Leeds United to soothing victory over Brighton

Chris Wood celebrates his second goal against Brighton with Souleymane Doukara.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Chris Wood celebrates his second goal against Brighton with Souleymane Doukara. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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HOW do you solve a problem like Chris Wood?

For the rest of the Championship, that question is a seriously taxing one.

Big games afford the stage to big players and on a night when several of the division’s most venerated talents – surprisingly minus one leading name – took to the field, it was the irrepressible Wood who was afforded star billing – again.

Among his bounty of 27 goals in a 2016-17 campaign which the Kiwi is never likely to forget, some strikes have carried rather more weight than others.

For all manner of reasons, perhaps Saturday’s glorious headed opener against Brighton is the most significant so far.

Sixty-three minutes of a tense tussle between two divisional heavyweights had elapsed before Wood broke the impasse in regal fashion.

Chris Wood fires in his second goal from the penalty spot.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Chris Wood fires in his second goal from the penalty spot. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The player who former Brighton defender Inigo Calderon had described in the week as a ‘young boy in a big man’s body’ during his time on loan as a rookie teenager with the Seagulls emphatically showed that the growing-up process is complete.

Wood’s movement was too smart for one of the division’s best defenders in Lewis Dunk and his majestic looping header was too much for one of the Championship’s top goalkeepers in David Stockdale. It was a goal fit to win any game.

In a contest of several subplots, Wood also had the measure of another divisional big-hitter in Glenn Murray and while Brighton’s main forward spurned chances at major moments, his Leeds rival took two of his.

His game-sealing second arrived from the spot five minutes from time after Fikayo Tomori fouled substitute Souleymane Doukara and even accounting for the prowess of Stockdale, you suspect that the visiting Brighton fans inwardly knew that Wood was never going to miss.

We have always got a chance with Chris. We know that and if Chris gets a chance, he is usually going to take it and for a team to have that confidence in him is unbelievable.

Leeds United’s Liam Cooper

After six successive defeats to Albion, Leeds finally had their moment. They may have been on the receiving end of several painful late goals in this fixture in recent years, but here was the balm.

Wood may have ultimately been the difference, but for an egalitarian like Garry Monk, the sight of key contributions also coming from the likes of Rob Green, Ronaldo Vieira, Liam Cooper, Charlie Taylor and Gaetano Berardi will not have been lost on him or many others, too.

It is the sign of a team in robust health, with Monk’s big call in demoting Pontus Jansson to the bench also paying off.

The reasons remain unclear as to why the decision was made. But the most important thing was that Jansson’s replacement in Cooper stepped in, produced a sound performance and plainly did not let anyone down.

Chris Wood celebrates his opening goal against Brighton.  Picture Bruce Rollinson

Chris Wood celebrates his opening goal against Brighton. Picture Bruce Rollinson

He may have been bailed out by one key save from Green to stop him scoring an own goal but that is what good team-mates do – watch each other’s backs.

On his elevation to the side and his take on a famous night, Cooper said: “The gaffer told me on Friday that I was playing and I was obviously buzzing because I have waited a long time.

“I have been professional and always will be and I am a very good professional, but it has been hard as I have not played as much as I have wanted to. Obviously, the gaffer has shown confidence in me and I would like to think I have repaid him to help us get a good three points.

“I think Pontus and Barts (Kyle Bartley) have been doing unbelievable and you can’t knock that as we have had a lot of clean sheets. It is hard coming in as you are not up to top speed, but you cannot moan about that, you have to do a job and we did it to a man.

“Rob bailed me out in the first half. But we do that all over the pitch if someone gets something wrong. I think that is the spirit we have got in the team.

“We have always got a chance with Chris. We know that and if Chris gets a chance, he is usually going to take it and for a team to have that confidence in him is unbelievable. Chris is always going to get us a goal.”

The due diligence of Monk and Chris Hughton was everywhere to see in a cagey first-half in which the respect between both sides was plainly self-evident.

Wood uncharacteristically skewed an effort wide from close in and Brighton survived a penalty scare when Wood went down under pressure from Uwe Hunemeier, but the one major chance was afforded to the visitors.

Beram Kayal’s low cross was flicked on by Sam Baldock with Cooper diverting the ball towards his own net, only for Green to make a flying save with the alert Berardi preventing Jiri Skalek from nodding in the loose ball.

On the restart, the urgency came from Leeds, with Brighton starting to resemble a side who subconsciously knew that a draw would be a pretty decent result, given Newcastle and Huddersfield dropping points.

They may have suffered a let-off when Wood shot at Stockdale, but the respite was brief.

A picture-book team goal began when Vieira won a thundering challenge he had no right to win before supplying Taylor, who rewound the clock with a buccaneering run and cross which was headed home in exquisite fashion by Wood.

It was the prelude to a belated flexing of muscles from Brighton, but Leeds were not to be moved. Knockaert saw his angled shot held by Green before Murray skewed an effort wide and the impression that it was not his or Brighton’s night was reinforced when Green made a fine reflex save to block his shot.

Gloss was then provided with Wood’s late penalty. A sweet win and a bit of a statement too.