Middlesbrough 0 Leeds United 2: Warnock’s first win puts Leeds in play-off contention

Robert Snodgrass challenges for the ball with Middlesbroughs Barry Robson
Robert Snodgrass challenges for the ball with Middlesbroughs Barry Robson
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THE run rumbles on and so, for now, do Leeds United’s hopes of reaching the play-offs.

First-half goals from Robert Snodgrass and Luciano Becchio meant United returned south down the A19 yesterday afternoon with their proud record of never having lost at the Riverside Stadium safely intact.

More importantly, however, United’s victory on Teesside means Neil Warnock’s side are still in with a chance of gatecrashing the top six.

That chance may, at best, be an outside one. United having played more games than all of their rivals and still being four points adrift means it can’t be anything else.

But it is a chance all the same and if the Yorkshire club can maintain the level of performance that proved far too much for Middlesbrough then they may still have a role to play in the promotion race.

If that is to prove the case then Leeds, due to having no margin for error whatsoever, cannot afford any slip-ups during a run-in that starts with next weekend’s eagerly-anticipated visit of West Ham United to Elland Road.

As with all six of United’s remaining home fixtures, three points is a must and in that respect the confidence levels of Warnock’s men will have been lifted by a rare win against one of the promotion chasing pack.

The victory over Boro was, in fact, only the second time in 14 games that Leeds have beaten any of the nine teams sitting above them in the table.

It was also the first time they have achieved the feat in more than six months, the only previous success for the Elland Road club having come in August when Hull City were beaten 4-1.

The comfortable manner of yesterday’s win also made a mockery of Boro seeming in much ruder health ahead of kick-off.

Sitting fourth in the table even after the previous afternoon’s fixtures, Tony Mowbray’s side had high hopes of putting down a marker in the battle for automatic promotion.

United, in contrast, came into the game still looking for their first goal under Warnock after two goalless draws against Portsmouth and Hull City and an unfortunate 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton.

That apparent lack of form didn’t, though, prevent Leeds from seizing the initiative in the early exchanges.

The platform for the visitors’ dominance was laid by Michael Brown and Adam Clayton putting in highly-polished performances in the centre of the field, while the attacking verve came from the midfield trio of Robert Snodgrass, Ross McCormack and Aidy White.

All three were afforded far too much space and time by Mowbray’s men, meaning they were able to dictate play and it was no coincidence that they were all heavily involved in the afternoon’s two goals.

The opener came on 18 minutes, White latching on to a weak header by Joe Bennett before intelligently delaying his pass inside until Snodgrass was in position on the edge of the area.

When the ball finally came his way, the Leeds captain struck a first-time shot that rolled under Jason Steele and into the net.

Leeds then doubled their advantage shortly before the half-hour and this time it was McCormack’s turn to play the leading role via three neat exchanges with Luciano Becchio.

The second of those was followed by Justin Hoyte making a hash of an attempted clearance, which allowed McCormack to reclaim the ball and roll a pass for Becchio to sweep into the net.

A two-goal lead was the very least United deserved for their dominance during a one-sided first half that had seen the visitors open up the Boro defence almost at will.

Never was this more apparent than in a five-minute spell towards the end of the half that saw Leeds spurn three excellent opportunities.

Becchio was the first to let Boro off the hook by firing over after getting in behind the home defence, who were then unable to prevent White being found by McCormack before the Menston-born youngster fired over.

Completing the trio of missed chances was McCormack, the Scot dragging his shot wide after once again being left to his own devices by Mowbray’s men.

After such a woeful display, Boro could, the locals lamented into their half-time cuppas, only get better in the second half.

Eight minutes after the restart, the home side did go close when Adam Hammill headed a Barry Robson free-kick into the side-netting.

By then, however, United had also already gone close courtesy of a neat lay-off from McCormack and a rasping Snodgrass shot that flew just inches wide.

On the hour, Clayton was then unfortunate to see his own fiercely-struck shot diverted on to the top of the net by defender Matthew Bates.

Clayton also went close 10 minutes later with another pile-driver of a shot after McCormack had broken swiftly as the home defence tried in vain to get back.

McCormack then had a golden chance to cap his hugely impressive display five minutes from time when played clear by Becchio.

However, after racing into the penalty area, the Scot was denied what would have been a deserved 16th Championship goal of the season by a brave block from Steele.

It was a let-off for Boro but not one they could capitalise on as, just moments later, Barry Robson was sent off for aiming a petulant kick at Clayton, who received a yellow card for his involvement in the spat.

After that, it was just a case of waiting for referee Carl Boyeson to blow the final whistle to confirm Leeds having extended their unbeaten run at the Riverside to an impressive 10 games and, in the process, breathed fresh life into the club’s push for the play-offs.