WHEN Leeds United’s head coach Marcelo Bielsa walked out of Elland Road last night the gaze will have been straight and sure, the stride purposeful and the shoulders will not have sagged.
The image of a troubled Bielsa sat crouched on the floor of a main stand corridor at Queen’s Park Rangers three evenings earlier had spoken a thousand words as he replayed events from his side’s loss over in his mind.
Such is Championship life that a fluctuating week could end with Leeds back in top spot having masterfully reaffirmed their promotion credentials and happy to look on as Norwich City and Sheffield United sweat it out again.
The pressure was loaded ahead of this contest with talk of a potentially flagging pitch for the Premier League in the air among sections of agitated United followers.
A guttural roar of defiance had arrived at the end of the Whites’ previous Friday night home appointment against Derby County in January amid consternation at ‘Spygate’ and it was replicated at the final whistle here following a similarly beguiling picture-perfect performance that hit stellar heights.
Leeds and West Brom may have been feted for their artistry for much of this season, but this was a high-stakes game when aesthetic pleasure was secondary in importance to the result.
In the event, Leeds triumphed with grace and elan.
Just as avowed football purist Pep Guardiola spoke earlier this week about wanting to ‘smell’ his Manchester City’s players’ dressing-room desire to lift the Premier League title, his mentor Bielsa was able to detect ravenous hunger in his side’s own promotion mission.
Having bristled at questioning on Tuesday that implied his Leeds side could be running out of steam, Bielsa’s sense of satisfaction at his troops answering that particular charge with a high-velocity performance will have been considerable.
The sight of Patrick Bamford netting twice – ahead of the first anniversary of registering a hat-trick against his current employers for former club Middlesbrough – was a reassuring one for the run-in given the absence of Kemar Roofe.
The performance of ex-Baggies player Tyler Roberts, who set up Bamford’s brace, was another headline development.
But centre stage rightly belonged to United’s talisman in Pablo Hernandez, who provided further compelling evidence to suggest that he is treating his club’s push for promotion as something akin to a personal mission as he approaches his 34th birthday.
His quite wonderful 25-yarder to set the tone with an opening goal after 17 seconds was the catalyst to an evening to behold for the classy Spaniard.
Bamford’s smart second just before the half-hour was a similar crowd-pleaser on an evening when United made a mockery of West Brom’s status as the best away side in the Championship and ensured all was well in LS11 again.
The hosts also claimed a spot of revenge in the process after a 4-1 mauling at The Hawthorns on November 10.
Incredibly Darren Moore’s side have won just once in the league on home soil since their second-half evisceration of Leeds, but comfort has been found away from the Black Country thanks to a staggering return of eight wins in their previous nine Championship away outings.
On a milestone night when Leeds sent out a statement, Albion’s direction of travel was emphatically diverted.
A touch of home apprehension was in the air ahead of kick-off, but any sense of unease wonderfully dispelled inside the first 20 seconds with another picture-book moment in United’s season.
A strike of majesty from Hernandez was the ultimate settler and was the prelude to a half of relentless vigour from Leeds.
It bore comparison with the pumped-up first-half ferocity against Derby, with Leeds on the front foot and quick to test the legs of the likes of Gareth Barry and Jake Livermore, with Hernandez conducting the orchestra.
Like Derby, Albion were suffocated by United’s intensity, with a baying home crowd preying upon their uncertainties.
Roberts spurned a close-range chance, shooting straight at Sam Johnstone, before Bamford added a second, which carried an air of inevitability with it.
Matuesz Klich found the excellent Roberts, whose flick to send Bamford clear was divine, and the Leeds forward the produced a cool pinpoint low finish past Johnstone.
It was another goal of beauty, with West Brom’s sole response before being afforded the sanctuary of the dressing room being a half-volley from Jay Rodriguez that was tipped over by the alert Kiko Casilla.
Albion briefly hinted at a rally on the restart, with Hal Robson-Kanu heading over, but their fire was out on 63 minutes when Roberts slipped in Bamford, whose low shot deflected in off Craig Dawson – the cue for a procession until the end.
The gloss arrived in stoppage-time when Gjanni Alioski turned in Jamie Shackleton’s centre to produce a scoreline that was by no means flattering.
Leeds United: Casilla; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper; Phillips; Hernandez, Klich, Roberts, Alioski; Harrison (Dallas 77), Roberts (Shackleton 90), Bamford. Unused substitutes: Peacock-Farrell, Douglas, Berardi, Brown, Gotts.
West Brom: Johnstone; Holgate, Dawson, Hegazi, Abarabioyo; Harper (Field 65), Barry (Morrison 63), Livermore; Robson-Kanu (Montero 70), Rodriguez, Gayle. Unused substitutes: Bond, Bartley, Townsend, Murphy.
Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).