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Leeds crush Norwich to cruise through to play-off final
Friday, 17th May 2024 10:37 by Tim Whelan

With our recent form being what it was, I was expecting a nervy encounter, with Leeds struggling to get through the Norwich City defence, but how wrong I was! Suddenly we recovered the swagger we have shown for much of the season, and not a moment too soon.

There was one enforced change to make, with Sam Byram suffering from a hip problem, so Archie returned to right back and Piroe came back into the starting line-up. So we had an extra striker instead of three in central midfield, but the chances are that Daniel Farke would have fielded a more adventurous formation anyway, now that a goalless draw on 90 minutes was no longer a good result.

Free scarves had been given out to twirl around our heads, and it all added to a tremendous atmosphere as kick-off approached. But in the first few minutes it looked as though Norwich had come out determined not to be intimidated, rushing forwards when they might have been expected to sit back and absorb the pressure. But maybe that was their problem, I remember their rivals Ipswich starting in a similar fashion in December, and getting picked off, with the final outcome being exactly the same.

Despite their lively start it was Leeds who produced the first chance, with a neat one-tow between Summerville and Rutter ending with a shot from the Dutchman that cleared the bar from a narrow angle. But it only took us seven minutes to go in front, and the goal came from quite an unlikely source. Not least because it was our first goal direct from a free kick all season (if you don’t count the one Bamford deflected in against Leicester).

It was thirty yards out from goal, so Norwich clearly expected the ball to be chipped into the area. They made do with only a two man wall, one of whom moved in response to Summerville’s decoy run. But Gruev stepped up and generated plenty of power despite a short run-out, and caught Gunn out with a shot that flew straight past him into the net. The keeper was slow to react, and had far too much ground to cover from his position well to the right of his goal.

Gunn might have been unsettled by this, as he was also at fault when we scored our second in the 20th minute. I thought at first Gnonto had overhit his cross from the right, and maybe he had, as it would have been well within the keeper’s reach had he come out decisively to claim it. But he who hesitates is lost, and his dithering allowed Piroe to steal in for the header, while ensuring that he was in no position to make the save, the Dutchman merely having to steer the ball into the net.

And yet things could still have been different if Norwich had converted their best chance of the moment later. Sargent beat Amapadu to a through ball, our captain perhaps not wanting to risk a full-blooded challenge which would have brought him a red card if he’d mistimed it. But our much-maligned goalkeeper came to his rescue, with a remarkable save. It almost looked like he’d intentionally gone down early to invite the ‘little dink’ over him, while being ready to fling his arm across to block the shot when it came.

After that we were back on top, with Rodon heading over from a good position at a corner, and Gnonto mustering a disappointingly weak shot while an unmarked Rutter was screaming for the pass. That was the first of a number of shots straight at Gunn, so perhaps we were feeling sorry for him after his earlier embarrassment. I wondered if we might rue these missed chances, but I needn’t have worried, as the third goal arrived five minutes before the break.

With Norwich trying to get forward in their efforts to get back into the game, Piroe took possession on the halfway line and raced down the left. His ball across the face of goal eventually came through to Rutter at the far post, and the Frenchman was close to scuffing it over, but it went in off the underside of the bar to put Leeds three in front.

There was still time for Leeds to go close again before the break, but a defender got a vital touch when Rutter was trying to dribble the ball into the net, and eventually it was scrambled off the line. So Norwich had a mountain to climb to get back into the game, and any chance they might have had probably went when their best player was ruled out for the second half, with Sargent succumbing to his ankle problem.

After the break it was more of the same, with Rutter finally back to his pre-operation best and Piroe leading the line in a way that we didn’t think he could, conventional wisdom being that he prefers a deep-lying role. There were more shots straight at Gunn, and Summerville headed over when we needed the cross to find a taller man who could have got high enough to keep the ball down.

And in the 68th minute we finally made Gunn stretch, and got the reward. Gnonto worked his way into space and sent a low shot to the keeper’s right, which Gunn palmed away, but only as far as Firpo on the goal-line. Firpo had time to look up and see Summerville racing into the area unchallenged, and so laid it on a plate for the Dutchman to score from close range.

There was no way Norwich were going to come back from that in the time that remained, so Farke was allowed the luxury of resting some of his star men and giving a few others a run out. I was glad that Rutter was one of those withdrawn, as he’d picked up a booking and was still charging around the field. The last thing we needed was for him to pick up a second yellow and miss the final, just when he’s rediscovered his best form.

Norwich still had their moments going forward as they sought a late consolation, but the Leeds defence were professional right to the end, reacting quickly to snuff out danger in a manner the canaries had failed to match all night. The South Stand amused themselves by baiting Ashley Barnes, probably in response to an incident at that end when he’d got aggressive with Firpo and then fallen over as the players jostled for position before a corner.

Eventually the referee put Norwich out of their misery with the final whistle, and our dominance over East Anglia was complete. Five wins and a draw against the two clubs from that region and a goal difference of 16-5. Unfortunately we already know that the final will be against a team we haven’t yet beaten this season, but on the evidence of this performance that might change, and this could be the year that our play-off hoodoo is finally broken.


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