Leeds United 2 Middlesbrough 1: Leeds aim to build on victory over Boro this time

SAME expectant crowd, same opposition, same smiles, same whiff of optimism among home supporters. Even the same result.

Ross McCormack celebrates after the opening goal

Saturday was just a delightful throwback, if you were a Leeds United fan, to December 22, 2012.

Two goals from Luciano Becchio crowned GFH Capital’s first game in charge in a 2-1 triumph over the Teessiders, which represented a fourth successive home win for United, just as Saturday’s result did.

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Similarly as last December after a keynote win over the Boro, Leeds – up to sixth in the Championship table – have wind in their sails again.

Now, it is a case of navigating the course better after hitting some post-Christmas icebergs under Neil Warnock in 2012-13.

Granted, it took a shock 52nd-minute leveller from Mustapha Carayol to pep United into second-half life with the winner 
arriving from an unlikely source in Jason Pearce five minutes later.

But the outcome of the game once United opened the scoring in the 35th minute courtesy of Ross McCormack was never in serious doubt on a day when Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele became the latest in a long line of players to be dismissed in this particular fixture.

Both moments had a certain ring of inevitably to them, with the red card issued being the ninth displayed in a Leeds versus Boro fixture in as many seasons.

You suspect that plenty of Teessiders among the 2,600 travelling contingent will have also had a crafty pound or two on McCormack – subject of three failed big-money bids from Boro in August – finding the net.

Boro chairman Steve Gibson revealed that a simple message from Jose Mourinho helped him decide to give the manager’s job to Aitor Karanka, who made his dug-out debut at Elland Road in front of a 30,000-plus crowd.

The Portuguese, whom Karanka worked under at Real Madrid, simply said to Gibson: ‘Get him’.

How Boro will wish they had got McCormack as well after he struck his 13th goal of the campaign and seventh in his last three matches and then proceeded to celebrate in front of the sizeable visiting contingent in the West Stand.

Whites manager Brian McDermott said: “Ross wanted to stay at Leeds and he never wavered in that. I wanted him to stay and I never wavered. Whatever money they threw at us, he always said ‘I want to be a Leeds United player’.

“It could have been any club coming in for him; he was very strong in his resolve to stay at Elland Road.”

On his side claiming a hat-trick of successive league wins for the first time in his tenure to move into the play-off pack, McDermott – who confirmed the club are close to agreeing a new deal with Alex Mowatt, who was excellent once again – added: “I’d rather be top one. But we’re in the top six, that’s where we are.

“You’d rather be where Burnley, Leicester and QPR are, but we’re chasing them and we’re making a good fist of it. We’re improving. I genuinely think there’s more to come.”

United fans did not need any reconfirmation of the qualities of their own ‘Special One’ on the pitch in McCormack. More pleasing too for them was affirmation of the growing stature of his supporting cast.

Reliable footsoldier Pearce, enjoying an impressive renaissance this season, deservedly got some of the limelight with his winner.

Danny Pugh, who produced a sound display in his first outing at Elland Road since October last year, was not far behind in his 100th appearance for the club.

Out of the first-team picture for the best part of a year, the Mancunian is making the most of his renewal, with Saturday rounding off a special few days for the 31-year-old, whose wife gave birth to his second daughter, Isla, on Thursday.

Pugh, who almost found the net with a rasping shot just prior to McCormack’s opener, said: “It’s been the perfect week for myself and I am absolutely delighted.

“This season has been difficult, not playing the football. You have just got to stay as positive as possible. It’s difficult at times, but I have come in and enjoyed it. There’s been talk of loans and sniffs of things like that. But nothing has materialised. So I’ll just try and kick on and see what happens.

“I am not going to look far ahead. I will train and, when needed, I will do the best I can and see where that takes me.”

It may been a different face in the dug-out for Boro in Karanka, but the same problems remain for the Teessiders, whose defensive deficiencies and capacity to shoot themselves in the foot resurfaced.

Karanka, who revealed that he received a good luck message two hours before kick-off from Mourinho, will have learned plenty already on that count.

Weak defending played a part in the opener for United, for whom loan striker Dexter Blackstock spurned an absolute gift before McCormack showed his strike partner how it should be done 10 minutes before the break.

A cross from Mowatt following a short corner routine was headed across goal by Tom Lees, with McCormack nipping in to nod home.

Boro’s afternoon then assumed nightmare proportions on 42 minutes when a terrible header from Daniel Ayala put the visitors in deep trouble, with panic-stricken Steele injudiciously racing out of goal, clattering Blackstock and seeing red, seemingly for serious foul play.

Yet somehow, Boro – with just one win on their travels since last December – conjured a leveller seven minutes after the interval from their two most dangerous outlets.

A probing run from Albert Adomah saw him send over an exquisite cross which was turned in brilliantly from close range by Carayol.

Boro blinked again on 57 minutes when Lee Peltier’s cross following another short corner was headed in at the far post by Pearce, who outmuscled ex-Whites full-back Frazer Richardson.

Carayol, strangely substituted on 67 minutes, said: “It was good to get on the scoresheet, but the result is more important.

“We made it hard for ourselves – there’s no excuse to concede two goals from set-pieces.

“Steele was unlucky because I thought Woody (Jonathan Woodgate) was behind him.”

Leeds United: Kenny; Lees, Zaliukas; Pearce; Peltier, Murphy (Brown 88), Austin, Mowatt, Pugh (Byram 81); McCormack, Blackstock (Smith 81). Unused substitutes: Cairns, Varney, Tonge, Poleon.

Middlesbrough: Steele; Richardson, Woodgate, Ayala, Friend; Leadbitter, Smallwood (Jutkiewicz 82); Adomah, Emnes (Leutwiler 42), Carayol (Main 67); Kamara. Unused substitutes: Williams, Butterfield, Whitehead, Gibson.

Referee: P Gibbs (West Midlands).