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Leeds go down to Liverpool in thrilling opener
Saturday, 12th Sep 2020 23:05 by Tim Whelan

I probably would have taken that scoreline before the start against the mighty Liverpool, but we certainly deserved a draw, and it was very disappointing to concede the final goal so close to the end.

And so it was that the fixture list gave us what in theory will be our hardest game of the whole season against the reigning champions who won the Premier League in such a convincing fashion last season. We were just the other side of Stanley Park from the venue that saw our last return to the top flight in 1990, but this was always going to be a far harder proposition.

The starting eleven had a fairly familiar look about it, with Koch being the only one of the new players to be entrusted with beginning the new season. But young Struijk had to play alongside him in our efforts to combat Liverpool’s talented forward line, as Liam Cooper failed a fitness test in the morning due to a calf injury picked up on international duty.

And right at the start it all looked a bit ominous, with Leeds unable to get the ball away from our penalty area for several minutes, a spell that culminated in a very harsh penalty award from Michael Oliver. As Kock blocked a fierce shot the ball bounced up off his leg onto his outstretched arm, when he had no time to get out of the way of it.

How could that be deliberate? Even Graham Souness said at half time that Oliver had been a bit generous to the men in red, but no matter. Mo Salah stepped up and confidently blasted the ball into the roof of the net, to give Meslier no chance. At that point I feared the worst, but Leeds were quickly back into their stride, and a couple of good moves created a bit of pressure at the other end.

We thought we’d scored when Costa had the ball in the net, only for that to be ruled out for offside, but the equaliser didn’t take long to arrive. A superb ball from Phillips’ sent Harrison down the left wing and he beat two defenders as he cut inside, before scoring with his right foot from the edge of the box. That must be a goal of the month contender.

But Liverpool were back in front on 20 minutes, as van Dijk was able to head home powerfully from close range direct from a corner. Koch made a late effort to try to track his run, but got blocked by another Liverpool player as he did so, which meant he had no chance of catching up with the big Dutchman.

That might have restablished the natural order of things, but Meslier made a decent stop from Henerson. And he also had to be alert when Struijk nearly lobbed him while knocking the ball back while attempting a clearance, but our French keeper thrust out an arm to tip it over the bar. It was proving to be a difficult afternoon for centre halves, and the mistakes even started to spread to the other end.

I hadn’t expected Bamford to get much change out of van Dijk in this game, but how wrong I was. A hopeful punt down the middle from Dallas seemed to have created no danger, but the Dutchman totally failed to control it, and his slip let Bamford in to dink the ball over Allison, and into the far corner of the net. I always said he was a great striker.

A man in the pub said of van Dijk “that Rolls Royce needs a service”. Soon it was Liverpool’s turn to have a goal disallowed for offside, but they would regain the lead on 33 minutes. This time the ball came off the back of Struijk’s head, though at least it was in the direction of further away from the goal. But unfortunately it fell kindly for Salah, and he accepted the invitation to smash the ball into the net first time.

With strikers like him around, even the slightest mistakes by the defence are likely to be punished. This time Liverpool managed to hold onto their lead until the break, but we had certainly given a good account of ourselves during the first 45 minutes. But Liverpool stepped it up a gear in the opening period of the second, looking to put the game beyond our reach.

Meslier had to save from Wijnaldum and Salah, before Salah had another shot blocked, and thankfully van Dijk headed over from his second attempt at scoring from a corner. But we weren’t beaten yet, and when Harrison raced clear and lobbed the advancing Alison, Alexander-Arnold could only head the ball into his own net. But for the second time a Leeds goal was to be ruled out for offside.

Yet we did equalise on 66 minutes, when Costa found Klich in the penalty area, and the Pole did superbly to control it and smash the ball into the net with his second touch. Another Premier League quality goal from a player who has spent the last two seasons in the Championship. Despite getting back on terms for the third time, Leeds kept on playing the right way, still trying to get forward whenever we had the opportunity.

To freshen things up Tyler Roberts came on for Hernandez, and we got our first glimpse of Rodrigo in place of Bamford. But it was Phillips who went closest for Leeds in the closing stages with his new-found prowess at free kicks. But unlike his superb effort at Blackburn, this time he curled it a little too much and sent the ball narrowly wide.

At the other end Salah shot over from a good position, and van Dijk looked most unhappy when his ‘goal’ was disallowed for a foul. Butt Mr. Oliver had blown for a fould on Koch by Jones' and the VAR check proved he was right. Though in any case Oliver owed us one after that penalty decision right at the start.

Our final change saw Klich going off with a slight knock, to be replaced by the ever-lively Shackleton. But as time ran out Leeds began to fall back on defence for the first time in the contest, as we came within range of a famous draw, and Ayling moved swiftly to block a shot from Firmino. But the trouble with everyone going back to defend is that forward players can be hopeless at responding to danger, and Rodrigo became our second new signing to give away a penalty.

He was caught napping as Fabinho raced onto the ball and half-heartedly stuck out a leg far too late. This time we could have no complaints about the decision. The only hope was that Salah might put the second penalty in the same place as the first, but he didn’t and Meslier went the wrong way. Four minutes of injury time weren’t long enough for Leeds to grab a fourth equaliser, so we went down to defeat on our first game back in the Premier League.

But despite the result we can take a lot of pride from this game, and a Liverpool mate told me on Facebook that “We were lucky to get 3 points today. Like I said a month ago Leeds have no relegation concerns.” And so we shouldn’t have. If we can continue to play as well as we did today, we should be well capable of beating a lot of teams in this season’s Premier League.

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