Under the command of the Argentine, Leeds United are emphatically back and there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Everton will move in an upward direction again with a shrewd operator in Benitez at the helm.
On the day Leeds fans returned en masse to Elland Road for the first time in 17 months, a special event deserved a game worthy of the occasion and both these esteemed clubs served one up.
Seventeen shots apiece arrived from both sides. The intensity that Benitez spoke of in referencing Leeds arrived for spells of the first half and in the final 20 minutes in particular, while Everton showcased an identity that they struggled to convey in two matches against United last term.
The previous weekend, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke about ‘the real Manchester United’ turning up against Leeds.
Here, Leeds displayed elements of their true selves, with Raphinha rewinding the clock to inflict more anguish upon the blue half of Merseyside with another stunning intervention.
Some worrying defensive deficiencies, another more unwanted trait that is sporadically shown by Leeds, surfaced in the first part of the second half in particular.
Bielsa’s acknowledgement that Leeds should have created more clear-cut chances given a possession count of 70 per cent was a fair one. But their endeavour to try and make things happen and keep going was never in dispute.
On the ropes in the second half for a spell after the excellent Demarai Gray put Everton ahead for a second time – with a third successive away win in a fixture between these two sides looking a strong possibility – Leeds showed character to find a way back.
Lesser sides would have succumbed and, for that, they deserved credit. Raphinha’s strike, a precision curler of infinite beauty, merited the highest bouquets.
Home captain Liam Cooper, who had a tough afternoon defensively, but who teed up Raphinha for his glorious 72nd-minute leveller, said: “If there had been another five to ten minutes, we would have won.
“We were in the ascendancy and I think we’ve had the chances. We will take a point, it is a bit disappointing, but obviously, if you can’t win, don’t get beat.”
On a marvellous atmosphere, with flag-waving home supporters creating a sea of yellow and white amid a riot of colour ahead of kick-off, he continued: “It was unbelievable to be walking out to that atmosphere and energy. They are our 12th man every single home game.
“They have been starved of football and we have really missed them. If it is going to be like that every game, we will be absolutely buzzing.”
It was a day when Leeds also remembered their own, with those lost since the start of the pandemic – Peter Lorimer, Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton, Trevor Cherry, Terry Cooper, Mick Bates, Peter Hampton, Alejandro Sabella and Frank Worthington – being honoured.
A third-successive consecutive goal against the Toffees from Raphinha emulated the feats of Lorimer in the Seventies.
Gray of course is another famous Leeds name from that era. On this particular occasion, it was a player with that surname in royal blue who produced the beguiling wing play.
He unhinged Leeds for spells in the first half as Everton posted menace on the break. It spooked the hosts’ unconvincing backline and the sense of unease would eventually manifest in a soft penalty concession.
Cooper got on the wrong side of Dominic Calvert Lewin following Lucas Digne’s cross with the Everton forward appealing for a shirt tug, with inspection of the incident on the pitchside monitor from Darren England being the precursor to a penalty award.
It was duly dispatched by Calvert-Lewin and taken on the chin by Cooper afterwards. He said: “Dom’s initiated the contact, he’s got hold of my shirt and I have got a bit of him. It is one of those things. I was disappointed it was a penalty, but I like to think these things even themselves out over the season. We cannot grumble about them.”
In the here and now, Leeds moved on and levelled with a clinical goal of their own.
It may have owed a fair bit to a misjudgment by Michael Keane in letting Patrick Bamford get away from him to set up Mateusz Klich, but it was a quality strike all the same.
Raphinha had won the initial flick-on from Luke Ayling’s long pass and the alert Bamford played in Klich, who powered forward before coolly converting past the advancing Jordan Pickford.
It was vintage Klich.
The stage was seemingly set for Leeds to go into overdrive attacking the Gelderd End in the second half, but Everton and Gray had other ideas. Found too easily by Abdoulaye Doucoure, Gray’s low, angled shot flew through the legs of Stuart Dallas before nestling in the far corner and Leeds were in trouble early in the second half.
Illan Meslier held his nerve to deny Calvert-Lewin and Gray. His third key save soon after to thwart Calvert-Lewin who was found by Alex Iwobi, who ghosted past Junior Firpo with alarming ease, would prove a big one in the context of the afternoon.
Instead of a two-goal deficit, Leeds remained very much in it.
The introduction of Tyler Roberts pepped them up, but it was the class of Raphinha which ultimately told.