Leeds United 1 Preston 0: Play-offs come into view for resurgent Leeds

Leeds United's Chris Wood misses a chance against Preston during Sunday's 1-0 win. Picture: Simon Hulme
Leeds United's Chris Wood misses a chance against Preston during Sunday's 1-0 win. Picture: Simon Hulme
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LEEDS UNITED ruined former boss Simon Grayson’s return to Elland Road after edging out Preston North End to move to within five points of the Championship play-offs.

Grayson’s current club Preston were dealt a hammer blow when goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was sent off after 31 minutes for handling outside the area.

North End then gifted United their winner with Alan Browne’s spectacular headed own goal immediately after the interval as Leeds moved to 13th and made it three wins out of four and 16 points from their last possible 24.

Whites head coach Steve Evans resisted the temptation to start Souleymane Doukara despite his startling impact as a 30th-minute substitute in Thursday night’s 3-2 win at Wolves.

Doukara again started on the bench as Evans opted to start with a 4-5-1 formation with Luke Murphy replacing Tom Adeyemi in midfield.

Adeyemi was subbed for Doukara at Wolves with a virus and had clearly not recovered while Evans also kept the faith with Giuseppe Bellusci and Liam Cooper at centre back with captain Sol Bamba again on the bench.

Sam Byram again started in right midfield ahead of Scott Wootton at right back with Chris Wood keeping his place in the lone striker role.

Former Whites defender Paul Huntington started for Preston, who also named another former Leeds player in Neil Kilkenny on the bench.

And it was Preston who began by far the brighter with Paul Gallagher making the game’s first impression when his second-minute free-kick from 25 yards out was well tipped around the post by a fully-stretched Marco Silvestri for a corner that was then cleared.

Leeds then had their first attack which ended with Liam Bridcutt blazing over from range before at the other end a Joe Garner flick almost fell to Will Keane who was denied by Silvestri getting their first.

After a break in play for an injury to Garner, it was North End who were looking more dangerous with Silvestri then producing two more fine saves, first to deny Keane’s attempted chip and then to tip Garner’s fierce effort just wide for another corner which was cleared.

After a quiet spell, Leeds were then presented with the game’s best chance when Liam Bridcutt ran half the length of the field before feeding a fine pass to Wood who had just the on-rushing Pickford to beat but saw his effort blocked.

Elland Road groaned in frustration but United were turning up the heat with Lewis Cook looking particularly committed in midfield.

Wood then almost his danced his way into the Preston area before skying a volley miles over from a subsequent corner, but the New Zealand international was having a good game and proved key to the game’s turning point on 31 minutes.

Liam Cooper’s long punt left Preston at sixes and sevens and a race on between Wood and Pickford, who hurtled out of his area. Wood attempted to head the ball past his opponent, who appeared to block the ball with his upper arm and was given his marching orders by Gavin Ward with Preston then bringing on 17-year-old Matt Hudson John Welsh.

Bellusci’s free-kick from the incident was curled just over but Preston were clearly in for a long afternoon and Leeds immediately began piling on the pressure with Garner now alone upfront for Preston.

But practically every United foray ended with a corner and, as has been the case throughout this season, Leeds lacked an end product from the corners letting Preston off the hook.

Yet as half-time loomed United twice went very close to opening the scoring with first Byram bringing the ball down inside the area before lashing over the bar.

Murphy’s looping cross then almost saw Byram connect with an onrushing header but Preston emerged unscathed from three minutes of injury time with home fans heading for their half-time drinks expecting a second-half onslaught.

And the home faithful had to wait less than minute for the Whites to take the lead with Preston massively shooting themselves in the foot.

The ever-impressive Dallas raced down the left hand flank and delivered an inviting cross which North End’s Alan Browne attempted to head clear but instead clinically planted the ball past Hudson.

A mixture of cheers and laughter greeted the goal with United seemingly heading for a straight-forward victory and their third victory from their last four games.

And Preston failed to get anywhere near Silvestri in the next ten minutes with Murphy firing United’s best chance wide before Grayson hauled off goalscorer Browne for Kilkenny.

But while Preston were offering little, 1-0 is always a precarious lead and Evans upped United’s attacking threat by bringing on Doukara for Murphy with 26 minutes left.

As if to serve as a reminder, Preston then mustered up their first shot on target of the half with Kilkenny wriggling free in the area and seeing his low effort well held by Silvestri.

North End saw two players booked with Paul Gallagher cautioned for dissent and Greg Cunningham yellowed for a foul yet the game was still not done and dusted.

Doukara attempted to grasp the nettle and produced a fine turn and run before playing in Wood who was offside before a potentially dangerous counter led by Dallas came to nothing.

But Preston again went close with 15 minutes remaining when a stinging drive from Kilkenny was brilliantly tipped over by Silvestri.

Byram was then booked for hauling down Cunningham from another break before Preston’s Tom Clarke also entered the notebook for scything down Doukara.

Adam Reach was then also cautioned for literally reaching out and pulling down Charlie Taylor after which Silvestri caused panic by rushing out of his area to clear.

Moments later, the Italian showed safe hands to pick out a deep right flank cross that threatened to cause mayhem, after which Evans brought on Mirco Antenucci for Wood with seven minutes left.

But still it was Preston who offered the attacking threat with Silvestri again pulling off another fantastic save to tip a smart shot from Kilkenny over the bar.

That, though, was to prove the last moment of danger with United by and large seeing out five minutes of injury time without too much drama as Evans brought on Kalvin Phillips for Dallas to further wind the clock down.

United should have made it 2-0 when countering in numbers in the last minute of five minutes of injury time but Bridcutt’s pass ended up in the hands of Hudson.

But United had done enough to seal another victory, their third in four games, as the club moved to 13th and just five points off the play-offs.

A promotion push? Who knows. But 16 points out of 24 is hard to quibble with.

Leeds United: Silvestri, Wootton, Bellusci, Cooper, Taylor, Byram, Bridcutt, Murphy (Doukara 64), Cook, Dallas (Phillips 90), Wood (Antenucci 83). Unused substitutes: Peacock-Farrell, Coyle, Bamba, Mowatt.

Preston North End: Pickford, Cunningham, Clarke, Huntington, Vermijl, Welsh (Hudson 34), Gallagher, Browne (Kilkenny 55), Reach, Keane (Doyle 87), Garner. Unused substitutes: Wright, Woods, Brownhill, Hugill.

Referee: Gavin Ward.