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Struijk snatches a vital point in injury time
Monday, 16th May 2022 22:07 by Tim Whelan

Just as our survival hopes seemed to be draining away and the mood inside Elland Road was threatening to turn ugly, Pascal Struijk chose the moment to secure a point against Brighton and Hove Albion and ensure that the relegation battle will be decided on the final day of the season.

The day began with Burnley’s lunchtime kick-off at Spurs, and it’s been a while since there has been so much love for Tottenham in the city of Leeds. In all honesty we got a bit lucky with the penalty that ultimately decided that nervy encounter in our favour, but Burnley’s defeat meant that at least we couldn’t be relegated on the day.

I tore myself away from watching that game below the stand in time to witness the presentation celebrating the anniversary of winning the FA Cup in 1972 and the league in 1992. But there was no mention of the decade in between, when we came from behind late in the game to beat Brighton 2-1 in the last home game of 1981/2 and thought we’d avoided relegation…

To face the same opposition 40 years on in identical circumstances Jesse Marsch thought we needed a bit more experience in midfield, so Klich was back in place of Bate, and Firpo was restored to the starting line-up. Koch was playing at right back to relieve Raphinha of any defensive duties, and Gelhardt started the game up front as we’d run out of any possible alternative.

With so much resting on the result Leeds made a determined start to the game, and could have gone in front in the first few minutes. When Sanchez dropped the ball from a corner it fell to Gelhardt, who turned and shot towards the top corner, only for the ball to hit Liam Cooper, who couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.

Maybe if we’d scored then the rest of the game would have been very different, but Brighton were to dominate the next half hour or so, as they began to cut through our defence seemingly at will. Their attacking threat has improved immensely in recent weeks (once they’d realised that Neal Maupay couldn’t hit a cow’s bottom with a banjo and dropped him from the side) culminating in their hilarious 4-0 win over Man U, so this was never going to be an easy game.

I seem to remember Firpo having a torrid time in the away game, and not much had changed as Brighton constantly got past our defence on their right flank. Their first chance came when Marsh skipped past Firpo with ease to set Groß free in the six yard box, but Meslier was on hand to make the save.

Our keeper made another fine save from Caicedo after Klich had blocked the initial shot, then March screwed the ball wide from a good position. Meanwhile Leeds were having trouble mounting any further attacks, with moves breaking down and Rodrigo copping some abuse from the crowd after sending an especially wayward pass into the stand.

When we did make a promising move Rodrigo hesitated instead of playing the obvious ball through to Harrison, and by the time he did attempt the pass a defender was in position to make the block. And having taken possession Brighton broke down the right and played the ball through to Danny Welbeck.

Welbeck was fortunate to end up with the ball after Llorente’s initial challenge, but then did well to take the ball round him and execute a neat chip over Meslier into the corner of the net. You had to say the goal had been coming, and the situation would have got worse had Koch not made a perfectly timed intervention, at the cost of picking up a knock.

But as half time approached Leeds were coming back into the game, and when Raphina sent a corner to the unmarked Klich on the edge of the area, Sanchez had to stretch to turn his fierce shot round the post. In doing so the Brighton keeper hit the post in the way that you really don’t want to hit the post, but got no sympathy from the south stand as he got treatment for the back injury he collected in the process.

And for most of the second half Leeds kept up the pressure on the Brighton defence in the desperate search for an equaliser. Gelhardt was finding it hard as a lone striker against the much larger presence of Lewis Dunk, but he kept battling away. Graham Potter was concerned enough to remove a couple of his more creative players in March and Caicedo, with the result being that they fell back on defence even more as the game wore on.

Even Firpo started to look creative going forward, though inevitably he was booked for a comical challenge when Brighton threatened to break away. Rodrigo was also booked before Cooper brought up a magnificent century of yellow yards for the season with another desperate tackle. But a similar indiscretion from Brighton almost led to an equaliser.

The free kick looked too far out for a shot on goal and Brighton didn’t anticipate the need to build a wall, yet Raphinha almost caught them out with a fierce strike that was heading for the top corner before Sanchez palmed it away. And a few minutes later Rodrigo curled an excellent pass into the area, only for Raphinha to turn it past the post from close range, possibly because he was distracted by the defender’s challenge coming in from his left.

Our first change wasn’t made until the 68th minute, and that was because Koch couldn’t continue due to the injury he picked up in the first half, and had to be replaced by Shackleton. That at least gave the defence a bit more balance and we could mount a bit more of a threat down the right. As the chances kept coming Gelhardt sent a shot just past the far post, and Harrison sent a shot too close to Sanchez from a good position.

But in the midst of all this Welbeck missed an excellent opportunity to put the game to bed as he headed wide when a cross found him completely unmarked. As time began to run out there were angry chants from the south stand in memory of Marcello Bielsa and in favour of sacking the board, while I thought one chap was going to get arrested for getting irate with the Brighton fans with a line of police right in front of him.

This was hardly what we needed when we urgently wanted the crowd to get behind the team in the hunt for an equaliser. On 83 minutes Struijk and Greenwood were sent on in place of Firpo and Klich to try and conjure some more attacking threat, yet almost immediately Struijk was left needing treatment after a clash of heads. Thank goodness he eventually got up again.

After this and several other stoppages six minutes of injury time were announced, and then the moment we’d all been waiting for finally arrived. Llorente swung the ball to the right hand edge of the box, where Gelhardt produced a moment of magic to beat one defender, flick the ball over another and then chip it first time to the far post.

And there was Struijk to meet it and send a powerful header across the line despite a defender’s desperate attempt to keep it out. It was only the second goal he’d scored for Leeds and quite often he’s headed well over from good positions, but he produced the perfect finish when we most needed it. Cue pandemonium and the players and subs piled in to celebrate in front of the West stand.

There was still time remaining and I was surprised the fans around me were begging the ref to blow the final whistle. Despite the relief at getting out of jail I doubted that a draw was enough and wanted us to keep up the momentum and get a winner, despite the unfortunate precedent of the comeback win in 1982.

But perhaps the rest of the crowd were right, as Brighton nearly snatched it in the final seconds, with a shot that went across the face of goal and just past the far post. So a draw it was, which meant that we finished the season with a record low of only four wins at home, so it’s a good job we’ve managed to amass a similar total on our travels.

This point does at least mean that we finished the day above Burnley and that the issue goes to the final game even if Burnley win their game in hand. While Everton are copying our tactics of getting players sent off in vital games, but despite their defeat they will be out of the equation if they win their game on Thursday.

Sunday is going to be desperately tense for everyone, but can we hold our nerve when it really matters?

Reuters



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