A FOOTBALLING perfectionist who clearly takes any setbacks personally, Marcelo Bielsa’s concern was self-evident ahead of last night’s game.
Signing off his programme notes, the Leeds United head coach humbly spoke of being sorry for not being able to reward the loyalty of supporters after frustrating results against Charlton Athletic and Derby County, having admitted that the outcome of both games had been ‘hard to explain.’
It pointed to a troubled mind, with the Argentine similarly exasperated prior to Leeds and West Brom’s previous Elland Road meeting on March 1.
Three evenings earlier, Bielsa was pictured sat slumped on the floor of a main stand corridor after a single-goal defeat at Queens Park Rangers – only for clouds to part by virtue of a handsome 4-0 routing of the Baggies.
Another relieving, if contrasting, victory at the Midlanders’ expense arrived last night – courtesy of a fierce low drive seven minutes before the break from Gianni Alioski, which flew in via a deflection off former Leeds loanee Kyle Bartley as Leeds returned to the Championship summit.
It may not have been anywhere as emphatic as the previous success, but just a second win in seven home matches will have been gratefully received as Leeds inflicted a first league loss of the season upon West Brom.
As has been United’s wont of late in front of their agitated home support – with an outstanding crowd of 34,648 turning out on a midweek night – it was an edgy, taut evening.
The nerves were manifested on the restart from Bielsa, who was booked by referee David Coote, with first-team coach Carlos Corberan having earlier received a caution as tempers were raised.
After a low-key first period, Albion belatedly displayed cast-iron evidence as to just why Bielsa viewed them as United’s ‘most difficult opponent so far’ ahead of the game. Testament to Bielsa’s unease was that he even substituted interval replacement Tyler Roberts, who made his first-team return following injury, to bring on another defensive option in fit-again Luke Ayling as Albion laid siege.
Once again, Leeds could not land that prized second goal, but this time they avoided any damaging concessions as witnessed in galling finales against visiting Derby, Swansea and Nottingham Forest.
Back in March, West Brom’s night went downhill after just 17 seconds – and never truly recovered – after Pablo Hernandez’s marvellous opener and while their first-half experiences were not as torrid this time around, the hosts dictated.
As ever, Leeds followers saw their side set the tempo and paint some striking on-pitch passing pictures, but an end-product by way of a 38th-minute opener was the more welcome development – even if it was aided by a touch of fortune.
Some typically stylish build-up play ended with Alioski unleashing a low drive which flew into the net via a deflection off Bartley – the key moment in a half in which Albion threatened periodically on the break but palpably lacked a focal point in attack.
There was still a sense of disappointment given that Leeds spurned a glorious opportunity to grab a second goal which has proved so elusive in recent home games. Sam Johnstone was thrust into taction to make a point-blank save to first get in the way of Patrick Bamford’s almost casual attempt from close in, with his recovery block to somehow get in the way of Helder Costa’s follow-up showcasing his prowess as one of the Championship’s top goalkeepers.
Leeds, who had gone close early on through Mateusz Klich’s low shot which was kept out by Johnstone, suffered only one real scare when Matheus Pereira waltzed his way past several challenges before shooting straight at Kiko Casilla from a tight angle.
The hosts, who saw captain Liam Cooper hobble off on 34 minutes, were given far more to think about on the resumption.
Pereira’s cross-shot was almost turned in at the far post by Matt Phillips before the Brazilian bent a well-struck free-kick just wide.
The warning signs were there for Leeds, with Johnstone beating away Costa’s fierce effort and Bartley making an important block to divert Klich’s follow-up.
At the other end, Casilla made a sharp save to turn away an effort from the irrepressible Pereira.
Johnston beat away Harrison’s drive, but the pressure was largely in front of Leeds’s goal. Mercifully, the hosts held out.
Leeds United: Casilla; Dallas, White, Cooper (Berardi 34), Alioski; Phillips; Costa, Shackleton (Roberts 45, Ayling 74), Klich, Harrison; Bamford. Unused substitutes: Miazek, Douglas, Nketiah, Clarke.
West Brom: Johnstone; Furlong, Ajayi, Bartley, Ferguson; Livermore (Edwards 82), Sawyers; M Phillips (Krovinovic 61), Pereira, Diangana; Robson-Kanu (Zohore 61). Unused substitutes: Bond, O’Shea, Townsend, Austin.