Pablo Hernandez sets benchmark as Leeds United take step towards Premier League

Pablo Hernandez’s agent should make sure he gets a copy of Leeds United’s first game at Elland Road since the coronavirus pandemic. The 3-0 win over Fulham was a perfect advertisement for what the Spanish midfielder brings to this team.
Goal: Gianni Alioski celebrates making it 2-0. Pictures: Simon HulmeGoal: Gianni Alioski celebrates making it 2-0. Pictures: Simon Hulme
Goal: Gianni Alioski celebrates making it 2-0. Pictures: Simon Hulme

Seeing Hernandez take hold of a game which Leeds were comfortably second best in – despite what the scoreboard said – made his stoppage-time withdrawal uncomfortable. Injured against Cardiff City, he only came on at Saturday’s interval, yet failed to make it to full-time.

Substitute Neeskens Kebano’s dismissal for bundling down Luke Ayling was barely noticed because of the No 19 on the fourth official’s board.

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“We had one more substitute and we thought 45 minutes was enough for his comeback,” explained coach Marcelo Bielsa, and if he was being ultra-cautious, who could blame him?

Match-turner: Pablo Hernandez is challenged by Tom Cairney.Match-turner: Pablo Hernandez is challenged by Tom Cairney.
Match-turner: Pablo Hernandez is challenged by Tom Cairney.

From now on, Leeds play twice a week every week until 2019-20 finally ends. It is a lot to nurse a 35-year-old through when he is at less than 100 per cent already, so it is perhaps just as well he plumped up their cushion to the play-offs before withdrawing.

Leeds went into the interval 1-0 up after Helder Costa picked out Patrick Bamford for a precise finish, yet Bielsa substituted both and his half-time changes were the story of the game. Hernandez was outstanding and fellow substitute Ezgjan Alioski scored inside 12 minutes. Ineffective in midfield, Tyler Roberts became a huge threat running behind Fulham’s defence from the centre-forward position.

The Cottagers were much the better team in the first half. Sixty-five per cent of possession is no proof of that, but even when Leeds play poorly, they seldom see less of the ball. As in Cardiff, Leeds’ passing was rusty, and Fulham applied huge pressure, just not to Illan Meslier.

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“Normally, nobody wants to play against us like this,” said an impressed Alioski.

Opener: Patrick Bamford is congratulated after scoring the opening goal.Opener: Patrick Bamford is congratulated after scoring the opening goal.
Opener: Patrick Bamford is congratulated after scoring the opening goal.

Anthony Knockaert regularly cut in from the right to shoot, but Meslier only saved once and it looked like the winger may again have missed the target, albeit marginally. The goalkeeper probably wanted something to do.

Aleksandar Mitrovic hammered a 41st-minute header against the pole supporting the net after wrestling with Liam Cooper and the visitors were incensed not to have had a penalty, the ball bouncing onto Roberts’s hand from his poor control.

Not that Fulham could claim to have had a raw deal from referee Tony Harrington. Mitrovic ought to have been sent off after 87 seconds after elbowing Ben White’s head when the ball was gone.

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Bamford might have added to his 10th-minute goal at the end of the half, but stabbed past the onrushing Marek Rodak. That would have been outrageous given how rarely they attacked.

Cardboard support: Jack Harrison waves towards the 15,000 'crowdies' after scoring the third goal.Cardboard support: Jack Harrison waves towards the 15,000 'crowdies' after scoring the third goal.
Cardboard support: Jack Harrison waves towards the 15,000 'crowdies' after scoring the third goal.

At times like that, top managers earn their corn.

“Marcelo Bielsa gave us a good talk,” revealed Alioski afterwards. “He woke us up.

“We wanted to avoid Fulham keeping the ball.”

With Leeds far more aggressive in their pressing and Hernandez able to release Roberts and wingers Alioski and Jack Harrison, Leeds were suddenly extremely potent.

“It was not a counter-attacking approach, we tried to play as we always do,” insisted Bielsa but counter-attack is what the Whites did brilliantly.

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Six minutes after the restart artificial crowd noise greeted the goal Harrison scored from Roberts’s pull-back. The only problem was, he had not, thumping wide.

Soon, though, he played his part in the decisive and deserved second. Meslier tipped Knockaert’s free-kick over and easily dealt with Bobby Decordova-Reid’s mishit shot from the corner. He quickly threw the ball to Ayling and within seconds it was in the opposite net, Leeds sweeping down the right for Harrison to cross into Alioski.

Now the fake crowd could pipe up again, accompanied by the roars of sporting director Victor Orta and applause from those around him as the Leeds representatives scattered around the main stand did their best to make it feel at least a little bit like a home game. With 15,000 “crowdies”, it looked like one, too.

Leeds were happy to go much longer in the second half – not aimlessly, but incisively. Alioski’s shot after being released by Ayling lacked power but when Harrison outmuscled Joe Bryan to score three minutes later, three Leeds players ran to congratulate Hernandez on his exquisite pass.

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Harrison leapt into the cardboard fans in the Don Revie Stand and puffed out his cheeks. The on-loan winger had delivered the knockout blow to Fulham, not just for the afternoon but in all likelihood their automatic promotion hopes, 10 points behind Leeds with seven games to play. Now the gap that matters is to Brentford, and at eight points, that is pretty big, too.

“There is nothing to celebrate,” insisted Alioski. “Eight, 10 points we are still saying nothing.”

Maybe not, but they are sitting pretty and the more they see of Hernandez, the more comfortable it will be.

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