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Leeds comeback in vain in crazy game with old rivals
Monday, 21st Feb 2022 23:19 by Tim Whelan

We enjoyed the opening minutes of the second half with a storming comeback to level the scores against Manchester United, but in the end some familiar defensive lapses saw us go down to another defeat.

For some of our younger fans this will have been their first experience of the animosity between us and that other United from the wrong side of the Pennines, a proper old school atmosphere and an eventful game played out in atrocious conditions. There was plenty of obscene chanting from both sides, and the visitors warmed up for the encounter by displaying a Turkish flag at the top of a bus taking them to Elland Road. Classy.

Meanwhile, Sky TVs build up included a long piece on Eric Cantona’s transfer to the red Devils after falling out with Howard Wilkinson. And when that was followed by the team news and we learned that Raphinha was on the bench I started to wonder if this was a parallel in modern times, could we again have our fans' favourite and most talented player at loggerheads with a legendary boss?

This at least meant that we had Dan James starting in his favourite position on the wing and it was Rodrigo’s turn to lead the forward line, while Forshaw was in the starting eleven to bolster the midfield. We were otherwise unchanged from the Everton defeat, as Dallas had recovered from the injury that had forced him off early in that game.

And so two of the most influential veteran coaches in the modern game were going head to head for the first time in the Premier League. The headmaster of the Hispanic school (Guardiola, Pochettino and Arteta) versus the headmaster of the Teutonic school (Klopp, Tuchel and Hasenhüttl). And with both being pioneers of a pressing style of football it was inevitable that the game would be as frantic as conditions allowed.

Leeds had a good opportunity in the opening stages as Klich floated a good ball over to Harrison on the left, but he could well have been distracted by Rodrigo’s attempt to latch onto the ball first, and could only strike it well wide. Then we suffered yet another injury, with Koch suffering after a clash of heads with McTominay.

He soldiered on for a few minutes before deciding he couldn’t continue, and bizarrely we didn’t take the option of claiming an extra concussion substitute. Firpo came on and took up his position at left back, and the obvious change was to move Dallas to midfield. But instead Bielsa opted to put Dallas at right back, with Ayling going to right back and Struijk becoming the defensive midfielder.

So the defence was unsettled with more players out of position than was really necessary, and I thought the visitors’ attacks started to carry a bit more menace. Though some of Man U's recent performances have been a bit lacklustre amid rumours of a few disagreements behind the scenes, there was always the danger that our hostility could wake them up and cause them to pull together against the common enemy.

And they came very close to going in front midway through the first half. Pogba got past Forshaw on the left and sent the ball across the face of goal, but it held up on the wet surface and Ronaldo got slightly ahead of it. So he had to reach back for the ball and couldn’t get much power on his shot, giving Meslier time to get across his line and make the save. But that was only a temporary respite, as they went in front on 34 minutes.

They hadn’t scored from a corner since Billy Meredith was a mere slip of a lad, but with our record at set pieces we were the perfect opposition to break that duck. Llorente was so busy grappling with Maguire he forgot to look back to pick up the flight of the ball, leaving Maguire to time his jump while our man was still on the floor, and he powered his header past Meslier to put them one up.

And just before the break they scored a second to seemingly put themselves well in control of the game. We lost the ball on the halfway line, and Sancho played a one-two with Lindelof on their right before chipping a cross over to where Fernandez had been allowed to race through unchallenged, and the Portuguese duly headed home to put them two up.

During the break I would have taken an abandonment so we could start again, and with the rain continuing and the ball holding up with all the surface water, that must have been a possibility. Even if West Yorkshire Police wouldn’t have fancied having to mount a huge matchday operation again. But only ten minutes into the second half I’d completely changed my mind about praying for further rain.

Bielsa had to go for broke, and he used up his two remaining substitutions, with Raphinha coming on for Harrison and Gelhardt replacing Llorente. As some fans worked out the new formation (Joffy going up front with Rodrigo, Forshaw and Struijk all dropping deeper) others began to dance with joy at the thought that Tyler Roberts would play no part in this game.

Man U have had a habit of throwing away two goal leads this season, and this time they managed it in the space of only 60 seconds. The fun started in the 53rd minute as Rodrigo raced down the left and swung the ball into the middle, where De Gea completely misjudged the flight of the ball as it went into the far corner of the net. Not sure Rodrigo meant it and it might have got caught by the wind, but who cared?

Then we were level! As the ball was played out Fernandez was dispossessed after being caught unaware of Forshaw closing in behind, and as Forshaw took ball and man at about the same time it came through to James on the left. With a bit of trickery James played it low across the face of goal, and Raphinha showed more determination than Shaw at the far post, to slide in and knock the ball home.

There was a VAR check to make sure that Fernandez hadn’t been fouled, but the goal was allowed to stand. And with the crowd now roaring Leeds on and Gelhardt looking very lively, for a while it looked like we could go on to win the game. A good chance came and went as the ball fell to Kilch in the area, but he couldn’t quite get it out of his feet and in the end his shot was too tame to trouble De Gea.

And as so often this season, our desire to get forward left us a little exposed at the back. With 20 minutes left Firpo lost the ball on one of his runs downfield , and Man U worked the ball over to their left, where they had a man to spare. Sancho played it past Dallas and Fred raced in to score with a fierce shot from a tight angle. And as the Man U players raced over towards their section of the crowd to celebrate, Elanga was struck by a missile thrown from the South Stand.

The closest we came to another equaliser was a fierce dipping volley from Klich, but De Gea had plenty of time to line it up, and the shot was too close to him so he was able to tip it over the bar. At the other end another break came through to Elanga in plenty of space, but his shot was rather feeble and allowed Meslier to get down and make the save.

As time ran out tempers got a little bit frayed with a few sliding tackles going in on the wet surface, and McTominay must have been close to getting a second yellow. We sensed that our best chance was to get them down to ten men, but Raphinha was booked instead for trying to get the young Scot sent off. It least it showed Raphinha is still committed to the cause.

But all hope was finally killed off in the 89th minute. Fernandez flicked the ball over his head and took it past Struijk, then played it through to Elanga, and this time the Man U youngster put the ball through Meslier’s legs to put the game beyond doubt. He then invited further trouble by giving a sneaky ‘going down’ gesture to the South Stand, but got away with it and attracted no further missiles.

There was still time for one more dust-up, as the players squared up to each other after a hefty challenge from Firpo, but there was no further scoring and we had suffered another defeat from our bitterest rivals. We can take a lot of credit from this game, but we really needed at least a point from a weekend when two of the bottom three managed to win.

It’s not going to get any easier and we could be in a difficult position after the next two games, so we can only hope that we can get a couple more key players back and our spirit can carry us through.


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