A YEAR that began with Leeds United the epitome of mid-table mediocrity will end with hopes high that 2017 can bring a concerted push for the Premier League.
Garry Monk’s men may not have been able to shatter the Championship’s last remaining unbeaten home record last night. An 85th-minute penalty by Jonathan Kodjia saw to that.
But, the manner of United’s display against a side fancied to make a concerted push for the play-offs in the new year suggested this is a team capable of lasting the course in the race to join the elite next season.
Certainly, Monk’s men are displaying the traits required to be a genuine challenger.
Against a Villa side who had won their previous five games at home under Steve Bruce, United were disciplined and well organised. In Jansson and Luke Ayling, they also had two defenders who are playing at the top of their game.
Going forward, Leeds maybe were not at their fluent best for the full 90 minutes. But, in Hadi Sacko, the visitors had the sort of pace that gives defenders nightmares.
His jet-heeled darts down the right flank were a big feature of the night and the Frenchman came within a whisker of winning all three points for Leeds with a late deflected shot that crashed against the crossbar.
Had that gone in, Leeds would have been sitting third this morning. As it is, they will end the year in fifth place if Huddersfield Town avoid defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers.
Either way, the club’s offer of a part refund to season ticket holders if Leeds fail to reach the play-offs no longer looks as recklessly generous as it did last summer.
This was only the fourth of 82 meetings between these two old rivals to be staged outside the top flight and it proved something of a slow burner.
As with the first half at Elland Road on December 3, much of proceedings were spent sizing each other up.
There were chances for Villa, most notably two in the opening five minutes, but these owed more to individual errors than any great creativity on the part of the two combatants.
Kalvin Phillips was culpable for both early openings and needed to be rescued by, first, Pontus Jansson and then Robert Green as Kodjia was twice denied.
At that stage, Bruce may have fancied a repeat of the 2-0 win his Hull City side had enjoyed against Leeds exactly four years ago to the day, but, gradually, the visitors came more into the game.
Villa did threaten again from a corner via a looping header from James Chester, who had featured in that 2012 derby win for the Tigers at the KC Stadium, but his effort just landed the wrong side of a post.
Those opportunities apart, though, it was a cagey first half in which Leeds’s only genuine threat came via Sacko’s pace, but even then the visitors were unable to test Mark Bunn.
Judging by the almighty blunder made by the Villa goalkeeper eight minutes after the restart, the hosts must have been mighty glad about his prior inactivity.
Bunn should have dealt comfortably with Jansson’s header from Stuart Dallas’s corner but, instead, he somehow allowed the ball to squirm from his grasp and over the line.
Kemar Roofe had been in his line of sight as the Swede’s header came his way, but, even so, Bunn should have done a lot better.
It was just the fillip United needed and Jansson came mighty close to doubling the visitors’ advantage four minutes later when another corner caused panic in the home ranks.
This time, the Elland Road cult hero took a touch before firing a ferocious volley that Bunn and his team-mates were relieved to see crash against the crossbar.
Kalvin Phillips then dragged a shot wide before Pablo Hernandez’s lofted shot flew just over the crossbar.
Sacko also wasted a great opportunity 13 minutes from time when played through by Ayling, the winger opting to shoot when a squared pass would have given Chris Wood a tap-in.
It proved a big let-off for Villa, who were literally handed the opportunity to equalise.
Liam Cooper was the guilty party, the defender jumping with an arm outstretched that clearly made contact with the ball.
Referee Roger East was unsighted, but his linesman got the call right and Kodjia sent Green the wrong way from the spot.
That set up a frantic finale that saw Sacko become the second United man to strike the crossbar before Green pulled off a fabulous save to deny Kodjia at the other end.
Aston Villa: Bunn; Hutton, Chester, Baker, Amavi; Jedinak (Adomah 78); Westwood, Bacuna, Grealish (McCormack 49); Ayew (Gestede 78), Kodija. Unused substitutes: Elphick, Agbonlahor, Gardner.
Leeds United: Green; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Berardi; Bridcutt (Vieira 83), Phillips; Sacko, Roofe (Wood 69), Dallas (Hernandez 57); Doukara. Unused substitutes: Silvestri, Mowatt, Antonsson.
Referee: R East (Wiltshire).
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