Early Christmas present is snatched away from Leeds in emphatic style

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AMID the ‘festive favourites’ aired at Elland Road, Andy Williams’s classic It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year was not among the playlist.

Although, if you were a Leeds United fan, things undeniably did feel oh-so wonderful. Well, for a good 20 minutes or so last night anyway.

The most delightful of Christmas presents – a place in the last four of the Capital One Cup – was waiting to be unwrapped, at least at half-time as United scented silverware. And the possibility of Europe.

But, alas, the perfect icing to takeover week was not to be delivered, as Chelsea avoided the ignominy of ‘doing an Arsenal’ with the most emphatic of second-half performances, much to the disappointment of the overwhelming majority of the bumper 33,816 crowd.

Leeds versus Chelsea is not an occasion for dulcet tones – more a medley of malevolence as two tribes resumed a belligerent rivalry after an eight-and-a-half year break with bonhomie thin to non-existent on the ground.

Just as the Gunners fielded their heavy artillery for their cup trip north eight nights earlier, so Chelsea paraded their front-liners, with seven of the side who started their Club World Cup Challenge a number of time zones away in Japan taking the field.

The likes of £50m man Fernando Torres, along with Frank Lampard, Juan Mata and Petr Cech all lined up after their Far East exertions, although the question of whether their body clocks were in sync with GMT was the least of the visitors’ worries.

Jetlag is one thing, coping with severe turbulence is another in one of Britain’s most bitterly-contested encounters.

Time’s winged chariot has not led to a dilution of a rivalry that first germinated in the Sixties. Quite the opposite.

No ordinary fixture with the ranks of security, police and assorted barriers and demarcation lines ahead of the game outside Elland Road more West Bank than an enclave just south of Leeds city centre.

Theatres of war on the pitch too, following countless battles to mention over the years.

A busy time for West Yorkshire’s constabulary, most definitely. Chelsea in town, Mad Friday and then the arrival of a few thousand from Teesside the day after.

The enmity between both United and Chelsea has always been mutual, with a volley of anti-Chelsea songs from the Kop arriving in the build-up to kick-off and following the first shrill of Andre Marriner’s whistle. Not that it was probably heard.

Amid incessant and sheeting rain, United’s raucous masses totally drowned out the 3,000 fans in the away end with a rendition of various derogatory ditties, which rarely ceased.

Although, it is possible that a small section of Chelsea’s supporters probably found it hard to stop themselves joining in when the Kop chanted “You’re just a fat Spanish waiter” in the direction of Rafa Benitez following the action getting underway.

Not exactly flavour of the month ‘up west.’

The action was incessant, with the tackles flying in and no quarter given throughout a high octane first-half before bedlam ensued.

Just as, seven or eight miles west, the claret-and-amber faithful had their moment to savour when Garry Thompson volleyed home, so United’s time arrived on 38 minutes when Luciano Becchio slid home following Jerome Thomas’s succulent cross. As for the ecstatic scenes immediately afterwards, think of THAT goal from Jermaine Beckford across the Pennines or the pair of goals that consigned Bristol Rovers and League One penance to oblivion.

An instantaneous chorus of “Luciano, Luciano, costs less than Torres and he scores more goals” followed the Argentine’s strike and what a sweet, sweet song it sounded.

Tom Lees then almost made it 2-0 before Lampard, whose father did a famous jig of delight around a corner flag during an FA Cup semi-final replay win for West Ham in 1981, brought out a top-drawer save from Jamie Ashdown.

But after luxuriating in the glow of a precious interval lead, the man who always looked most likely for Chelsea – the classy Mata – restored parity moments into the second half, although he was lent a big hand by the most unfortunate of mistakes from Ashdown. Parity restored and, to be honest, it was never quite the same after that. And after being distinctly quiet in the first period, the decibel levels were finally raised among the Blues contingent – mainly by virtue of a thundering smoke bomb.

Ashdown redeemed himself with a splendid save to deny Torres before quick-fire strikes from Branislav Ivanovic, who looked like he had just stepped off a Sydney to London flight given his subdued first-half performance, and Victor Moses killed the night.

Credit where it is due, the backing continued from the Kop, with the United songmeisters brazenly singing about Ashley Cole’s former ‘squeeze’ Cheryl when the England left-back entered the fray.

Strikes in the final minutes from substitute Eden Hazard and Torres was the cue for a number to beat a hasty path to the exit doors. But, admirably, a fair quorom of Whites fans stayed until the bitter end as the ‘Jingle Bells’ chorus came from the Chelsea punters.

Wembley? The dream was good while it lasted.

Now onto the Championship main course and Middlesbrough on Saturday as United attempt to resume their rivalry with Chelsea on a much more regular basis. Make that every season.