Makeshift Leeds United dig deep to reassert authority over Derby County
As Pep Guardiola yesterday lifted the Premier League title just a few days after Mauricio Pochettino had inspired one of the most dramatic comebacks in Champions League history, the Argentinian is this morning able to bask in his own success at the helm of Leeds United.
Carving out a precious play-off semi-final advantage over Derby County to take back to Elland Road is undoubtedly small beer compared to how Manchester City held off the challenge of a quite brilliant Liverpool side during the most thrilling title race for years.
Nor can it compare with how Tottenham Hotspur fought back from seemingly being dead and buried at 3-0 down with just over half an hour remaining to knock Ajax out of Europe’s blue riband competition.
But, make no mistake, this first-leg victory for Leeds was one achieved very much against the odds.
The collapse of Devon Loch proportions that had seen automatic promotion disappear over Easter meant Bielsa’s side headed to Pride Park feeling lower than a snake’s belly.
All the trash talk in the world from Pontus Jansson during the build-up could not hide the demoralising effect of claiming just a solitary point from a possible 12.
Only West Bromwich Albion’s own defeat at Derby on the last day had prevented Leeds from suffering the ignominy of finishing fourth in a three-horse race.
Lifting a group of players who had given everything during nine months of often scintillating football seemed beyond even the powers of Bielsa, a man who Jansson had described just last week as being “a God” in the city.
Throw in the injury and suspension crisis that meant United’s bench at Pride Park contained four outfield players with a combined nine minutes of first- team action to their name plus two teenagers just a few months into their senior careers, and it was no wonder Frank Lampard’s in-form Rams were strongly fancied to prevail.
Like Tottenham in Amsterdam, however, Leeds dug deep into their resolve to produce the sort of performance that had got them into such a promising position heading into Easter.
Even losing yet another player to injury – Adam Forshaw being forced out of the action midway through the first half to be replaced by 19-year-old Jamie Shackleton – could not deflect Bielsa’s men.
Nor could finishing the game with so many square pegs in round holes it was tempting to ask just who was still playing in their preferred position.
There was Jack Harrison, the winger on loan from Guardiola’s City, playing as the lone frontman, as full-back Gaetano Berardi filled in at centre-half.
Stuart Dallas, an international winger, could be found at left-back, while Kalvin Phillips was so busy he seemed to be playing right across the entire midfield.
This need to make do and mend could not prevent Leeds from taking charge of a contest that was always likely to be on the feisty side.
‘Spygate’ had brought fresh life to a rivalry that bordered on hatred when sides led by Don Revie and Brian Clough had gone toe-to-toe in the early Seventies.
This much was clear from the first whistle, while all that was needed to cap the ill-feeling and rancour that flourished during the closing stages was Franny Lee and Norman Hunter taking a swing at each other in the mud of the Baseball Ground.
Derby’s ire was inflamed this time by a penalty award that referee Craig Pawson rescinded after speaking to linesman Eddie Smart.
Even Frank Lampard admitted afterwards the collision between Jack Harrison and Jayden Bogle had been “borderline” in terms of whether a foul had been committed.
But Pawson’s U-turn incensed both the home fans in a 31,723 crowd and Lampard’s players, whose indignation soared further when Mateusz Klich got away with a yellow card after thrusting his forehead into the chest of Fikayo Tomori.
“I am sure everyone has seen it so they can make their own minds up,” was the curt response of Richard Keogh when asked afterwards if Klich should have seen red.
Derby may have had a case with that call by Pawson, who replays showed had briefly looked the other way when the Pole had clashed with the former Hull City loanee.
But, over 90 minutes, the Rams were made to look more like lambs by a Leeds side who bossed midfield and mixed finesse on the ball with a steely determination.
Never was this more apparent than in the move that led to the only goal on 55 minutes.
Tom Lawrence’s lunge at Dallas left the Northern Ireland international in a crumpled heap. United, though, barely missed a step as the ball was worked to Jack Harrison.
His curled pass was of such quality that it took out five Derby defenders before arriving perfectly for Roofe to finish first time past Kelle Roos.
Further goals for the visitors should have followed, Roofe being denied by a fine Roos save and the outstanding Shackleton laying on a chance for Pablo Hernandez that simply had to be converted.
Instead, the usually reliable Spaniard missed his kick completely. A further let-off for the hosts came late on when Roos parried a Shackleton shot to Harrison, who was standing offside when his shot found the side-netting, before Pawson brought a halt to the often fiery proceedings with the final whistle.
Like Guardiola and Pochettino – who both credit the Leeds coach with playing a pivotal role in their own coaching careers – Bielsa had done it the hard way.
Now the master, like Guardiola’s City when beating Brighton & Hove Albion yesterday, has to finish the job.