Big match verdict: Leeds United on message by working together in win over Middlesbrough

SOME wins are sweeter than others.

Pablo Hernandez scores the opening goal for Leeds United against Middlesbrough ( Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).

Middlesbrough manager Garry Monk had stood in his technical area watching events unfold with his hands in his pockets for almost the entirety of yesterday’s encounter as if to shelter from the cold.

But any hopes of slipping away quietly after a disappointing first return to Elland Road were disabused as there was still time for home supporters to serenade him with a final number.

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There was certainly no hand of friendship involved.

Gianni Alisoki scores Leeds United's second goal against Middlesbrough that proved the winner (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).

These encounters have rarely disappointed in the drama stakes over the years and nor did this version.

Mention Middlesbrough and several of Thomas Christiansen’s predecessors – from the likes of Neil Redfearn and Brian McDermott to Neil Warnock and David Hockaday – will harbour positive memories and the current Leeds United head coach now has his own moment to cherish.

From a home perspective, the mantra of togetherness was simply inescapable ahead of kick-off, with a fetching mosaic reinforcing that message in the lower section of the East Stand as fans lifted cards to reveal a ‘Together’ message ahead.

With the club delivering on the promise of creating a striking ‘visual spectacle’, with flags also provided to home supporters, Leeds players and Christiansen would have been under no illusions that they would also have to perform their side of the bargain.

Gianni Alisoki scores Leeds United's second goal against Middlesbrough that proved the winner (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe).

Seeking to avoid a fifth successive loss, and a drama descending into a full-blown crisis after seven defeats in their previous eight games in all competitions, it was a test of nerve for the hosts against opponents who had been showing signs of finding their mojo with three consecutive wins.

At the start of a definitive week, Leeds rewound the clock to some golden days of late summer and displayed character, belief and heart in the process. Christiansen called for a stronger mentality and received what he was looking for with interest.

On an afternoon when the outcome of the game was far more important than the performance, Leeds got over the line to record their biggest victory of the season and afford themselves a spot of schadenfreude in the process.

Part of the reasoning for Monk leaving West Yorkshire for Teesside revolved around a view that he would be onto more of a winner in terms of the prospects of taking Boro back to the Premier League rather than Leeds.

Yesterday’s evidence did not crystallise that belief on a day when Leeds drew level on points with Boro. They are breathing down their necks, with the Teesside club currently occupying the final play-off spot.

Leeds looked the part on the pitch in a fruitful, uplifting first half when they definitely did not resemble a side who went into the game with seven defeats in their previous nine league fixtures.

It was an opening 45 minutes that ensured that Monk had much more to ponder at the interval and while his Boro side upped it in the final quarter, and pulled one back with a hugely controversial penalty from top-scorer Britt Assombalonga, there was not too much method, despite belated pressure.

The Whites’ orchestral leaders struck a tune at key junctures, with the likes of Pablo Hernandez, Samuel Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski looking more like their old selves, while Boro’s marquee men never truly came to the party.

When Leeds had to muscle up and man the fort in a finale dominated by Boro, they did that, with their work-rate prodigious and their character infectious.

In many respects, that displaying of their dogged, ugly side was a far more important sight than that of their free-flowing traits.

The first half burst into life at the midway point when Leeds-born James Tavernier just failed to get on the end of an Assombalonga cross with the goal gaping before play switched to the other end with the hosts going ahead.

Hernandez was the beneficiary, staying alert and showing a striker’s sense to ghost in at the far post and convert after Kalvin Phillips flicked on Alioski’s searching cross.

It gave Leeds a platform and, aside from a smart save to turn away Stewart Downing’s strike, Andy Lonergan was relatively underemployed and would justifiably have expected to be busier.

Leeds’s stirring tempo continued on the restart and they had Boro right where they wanted them after netting a classy second nine minutes after the break.

Sublime footwork from Kemar Roofe, who justified his inclusion with a strong-running performance up front on his own, deceived Grant Leadbitter and league debutant Connor Roberts to find Hernandez, whose inch-perfect low cross was dispatched by Alioski for a superb team goal.

A fine low strike from Saiz that struck the base of a post almost added a third before Boro threw on speedsters Adam Traore and Marvin Johnson and showed belated dynamism.

Braithwaite struck a post before Boro were afforded a lifeline in bizarre fashion.

After a consultation with a linesman, Keith Stroud awarded a spot-kick after Luke Ayling rugby-tackled the leg of Daniel Ayala and hauled him down, despite the Boro defender seemingly committing the first offence after hauling him down in the box.

Assombalonga – denied what looked to be a cast-iron penalty early on when he went down under pressure from Gaetano Berardi – sent Lonergan the wrong way and it was game on.

Braithwaite went close for Boro and Ayala headed wide during seven minutes of stoppage-time, but it was United’s day.