STEVE BRUCE typically refers to this stage of a season as “the tickly bit”.
He should know. Not only does the Sheffield Wednesday manager’s CV boast a record-breaking four promotions to the Premier League but he also came agonisingly close to adding a fifth last year after steering Aston Villa to the play-off final.
Leeds United, however, are clearly intent on disabusing any suggestion nerves will affect their own push for a top-flight return. Instead, Marcelo Bielsa’s men were calmness personified in sweeping away both Bruce’s Owls and their already slim hopes of gatecrashing the top six.
If United did feel any pressure after being deposed from the top two by Sheffield United earlier in the day, they hid it well.
Be it how seamlessly Kalvin Phillips moved from being deployed as a third centre-back to a more advanced role when the hosts had possession or the speed with which United’s front five darted here, there and everywhere, the home side’s control of both the game and their own emotions was total.
Not even the heroics of Keiren Westwood in the Wednesday goal could break Leeds’ unwavering sense of belief that this is to be their year.
Save after save by the Republic of Ireland international may have led the more fretful among the home support in the 36,461 crowd to wonder if this might not be their team’s day after all.
But Bielsa’s players displayed no such doubts and their reward came in the 65th minute when Jack Harrison finally broke Westwood’s resistance with a deft finish from a drilled pass from Pablo Hernandez.
“It is important you do not let the pressure affect you,” the Manchester City loanee told The Yorkshire Post. “The tension is high at this stage of the season and a lot of teams cave under that pressure.
“The fans let us know the Sheffield United score. But the team knows we have to focus on what we need to do. We have a really strong team, not only physically but mentally, too. Put that with the talent we have and there is no reason why we can’t handle all that comes our way.”
Bruce, as a former Manchester United captain, had been given his customary ‘welcome’ by the locals.
“I was abused from the moment I got off the bus,” he said with a wry smile afterwards.
It was the Owls chief’s eighth visit to Elland Road since giving up playing and, unusually, each has come against a different manager in the home dugout, Terry Venables the first in 2003.
‘El Tel’ won that particular duel 2-0, while others to get the better of Bruce in LS11 include such unlikely bedfellows as John Carver, Steve Evans and Garry Monk.
None of those past victories, however, could compare with the stranglehold Leeds enjoyed over a Wednesday side who had lost just once in 14 league outings before heading up the M1.
But for Westwood and some truly heroic defending by Tom Lees and Michael Hector, the Owls could easily have suffered the sort of defeat that scarred the shift from autumn to winter under Jos Luhukay.
The one-handed reflex save that denied Tyler Roberts in the 12th minute was as good as any the Championship will see all season. It also set the tone for much of what followed, as Westwood beat away efforts from Ezgjan Alioski, Harrison and then Roberts again for good measure.
Even when the Owls goalkeeper was beaten by Luke Ayling’s shot, Gary Hooper was on hand to block in a fitting act of revenge for earlier having his own dart towards the home goal halted by a last-gasp tackle from the Leeds full-back.
Barry Bannan also brought a fine save from Kiko Casilla but there could be little doubt who had been the better team as the half-time whistle blew.
This United dominance continued after the restart, as Patrick Bamford headed wide and then somehow side-footed a shot past the post after Harrison had done brilliantly to keep a deep cross in play. Like a boat taking on water quicker than could be scooped back out, Wednesday increasingly bore the look of a team about to be sunk.
Sure enough, Harrison was in the right place at the right time to finally beat Westwood.
Wednesday huffed and puffed in an attempt to draw level but Marco Matias, once the scorer of a truly spectacular goal at Elland Road, wasted the best chance when firing into the side-netting late on to leave Lees, the Owls captain, admitting his former club had been worthy winners.
“It was a long afternoon for us,” said the defender, who recently made his 200th appearance for the Owls.
“To be fair to Leeds, they are a very good team. We have to look at it as a benchmark for us, really.
“The level is set by them, Norwich and Sheffield United. Whatever happens with the top three fighting for those automatic slots, fair play to whoever comes out on top because they will deserve it.
“Leeds are very good and, to be honest, blew us away a bit. We know Leeds like to press high and their movement is really, really good. The front five or six are never in one position.
“Saying that, we defended our goal well. I won’t say we defended well. But we protected the goal. We had a couple of chances at the end to get something but I don’t think we can complain with the result.
“It was a shame the game was so one-sided. Hopefully, next season we can be the dominant team in these sort of fixtures – rather than hanging on for 90 minutes.”