A bad case of déjà vu, as another red card leaves Leeds on the brink
Thursday, 12th May 2022 22:25 by Tim Whelan
For the second time in four days an early goal and a red card left Leeds chasing the game against London opposition, and this time it was Chelsea’s turn to boost their Champions League hopes at our expense.
In the build-up to the game head coach Jesse March had tried to lift the squad with some inspirational quotes from the likes of Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi and Muhammad Ali. But once the game began we could only float like a bee and sting like a butterfly, as we barely laid a glove on them all evening, while Ghandi’s commitment to non-violence was soon forgotten by at least two members of the team.
There were four changes to the starting line-up, one obviously enforced by Ayling’s suspension. Firpo and Klich were dropped after their uncertain displays of late, and Gelhardt was replaced by Rodrigo. Bate was rewarded for his fine performance off the bench at Arsenal with his full debut against his former club, and we had four central defenders in the side.
So we had no specialist full-backs as the game began. It was rumoured that Raphinha was supposed to be playing at wing-back despite the limitations this would place on our attacking options, but I’m not sure anyone knew what they were supposed to be doing as Chelsea dominated possession right from the start. There had been a buoyant atmosphere before kick-off, but that soon evaporated once the visitors had taken the lead in the fourth minute.
Reece James took advantage of the lack of width in the Leeds defence to race unchallenged down the Chelsea right, and cut inside before spotting the run of Mason Mount. Mount had plenty of time to line up the shot, but it was still an excellent finish, curling the ball into the net from 20 yards out. We were left to curse our luck that he had picked this game to score, when his shot at Everton the other week hit both posts before coming out.
Here we go again, we all thought, and the crowd became restless and nervy to match the performance in front of us on the pitch. With Marsch’s preference for a narrow formation despite the many wingers at his disposal, Chelsea had enough quality in midfield to frustrate our efforts to play through the crowded centre. Rodrigo gave the ball away too often and Phillips didn’t look fully fit as he struggled to dictate play like he did so often last season.
One promising break ended up with James being blocked off, but no free-kick was given, which might have frustrated James into his moment of rashness in the 25th minute. James got the ball with a forceful challenge but his follow-through caught Kovacic on the ankle and referee Anthony Taylor pulled out the red card.
James seemed amazed by the decision and hung around by the tunnel in case the decision was overturned by VAR but it was nothing doing, despite Marsch’s protest to the fourth official after watching it back on his monitor. Kovacic hobbled off the field a few minutes later and is now a doubt for the FA Cup final on Saturday.
Obviously going down to ten men made a difficult task nigh on impossible, and several times Chelsea went close to extending their lead before the break. Lukaku flicked a header just wide and when he did get the ball in the net it was ruled out for offside. There was also an acrobatic clearance off the line from Llorente after a Meslier save, but the replay suggested that would also have been chalked off if it had gone in.
Finally there was a moment of respite, but only because of a medical emergency in the crowd. They seem to have become increasingly frequent since the crowds came back this season, so it’s about time we had one at Elland Road. And with our injury record it’s wasn’t to be long before the next medical issue on the pitch, and this time it was Harrison’s turn to add to our injury concerns as he was replaced by Firpo.
At half time Sky Sports viewers were treated to the irony of Graham Souness having a go at Dan James for being reckless and endangering an opponent. Older readers might recall that Souness’ own playing career wasn’t entirely free of those sorts of challenges.
At the start of the second period we could have had a promising break but Raphinha lost possession as he chose to try to run through two defenders instead of passing to Rodrigo, who was completely free on the left. But normal service was soon resumed with Chelsea giving our defence the run-around, and Lukaku muscling Llorente off the ball on more than one occasion.
And ten minutes after the break they went two in front after a fine passing move that left the Leeds defence chasing shadows. Jorginho found Mount who played the ball back to Pulisic, and the American had plenty of time to pick his spot and curl the ball into the corner of the net from the edge of the area.
Phillips allowed his frustration to get the better of him as he got booked for a needless challenge when he had no chance of getting the ball. This brought up our 100th. card of the season (97 yellow, three red), making us the first team in Premier League history to achieve this particular honour. There was a case for taking him off when Klich was introduced in case he picked up a second yellow, but instead it was Bate who was removed, as Marsch wanted a little more experience in his midfield.
Chelsea came close to a third when Lukaku rolled Cooper and raced to the edge of the area, before cutting inside and shooting just past the post. But we did finally manage a couple of chances of our own, with Raphinha heading over from a Firpo cross that curled just behind him, and Koch also putting a header over the bar.
We also had a shout for a penalty as Firpo was shoved over in the area with the ball still in play, even though the ball had already been gathered by Mendy. But I don’t know if VAR even bothered to look at it. That might have given us an unlikely route back into the game, but Chelsea sealed their victory with the third goal on 83 minutes.
Llorente lost possession just inside the Leeds half, and a couple of swift passes later it was with Lukaku in the penalty area. It seemed the chance had gone as he dallied while Struijk sprawled on the floor in front of him, but eventually he managed to find the space to fire powerfully into the roof of the net and put the game beyond Leeds once and for all.
By then Raphinha had limped off to be replaced by Gelhardt, but the young man got precious little service to feed on as the Leeds performance fizzled out. Some fans stayed to roar the team on while a good portion of the East Stand headed for an early exit, before the final whistle put us out of our misery.
We had hoped that Chelsea would take this game easy with the FA Cup final to come, but their performance was anything but, with the need to secure their place in the Champions League. Some fans say they hadn’t expected much from this last of our tricky run of fixtures, but Everton had managed to beat them.
Certainly Jesse Marsch was unlucky to suffer another red card, but in truth we had looked a poor second best even with eleven men on the field, and today his critics on social media have been out in force. Some of the kinder comments have been that he’s out of his depth and another Dave Hockaday with a different accent.
The simple truth is that our diabolical goal difference means that we need to get one point more than Burnley or three more than Everton, when both of these two have a game in hand. If we can’t manage to do that we will discover if Marsch is the right man to get us back up from the Championship.
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