That Leicester City left Elland Road with all three points may have been remarkable, after a first half in which they should have been at least three goals behind, but it was hardly inexplicable.
While Ross McCormack, Luke Varney and Tom Lees all failed to take glorious chances for Leeds, the reliable David Nugent made the most of his sole opportunity of the game to seal the Championship leaders’ sixth successive victory.
The fact that Nugent’s 17th goal of the season, his fifth in four games, was created by a dummy from Kevin Phillips escaped neither manager. The 40-year-old, signed by City boss Nigel Pearson on Wednesday after the striker had been released by Crystal Palace, had only been on the field for 10 minutes when he stepped over a low cross from Liam Moore’s, giving Nugent the fraction of a second he needed to touch the ball past Lees and then poke it past Paddy Kenny.
“For someone of Kevin’s age to be able to get into the game as quickly as he did is testament to how he’s looked after himself and to his hunger and desire – there aren’t too many players of his ilk,” said Pearson.
Moments before Phillips’ clever non-intervention, he had set up City’s best chance of the second half for Andy King. “It’s nice to have options and he certainly gives us another. I’m hoping – well, I know – that we’ll get a lot of positive contributions from him, on the field and off it in terms of the example he sets, how hard he trains.”
For Brian McDermott, pleasure in the response shown by his players after last week’s 6-0 at Sheffield Wednesday was understandably tempered by the result. The Leeds manager was of the opinion that Nugent should not have been on the pitch at all, after he claimed he had kicked out at Leeds defender Jason Pearce, but acknowledged Leicester’s resilience and strength of character.
“The most important thing was to restore pride in the shirt, and the players did that. The shape and organisation was good and we never looked like losing,” said McDermott. “But then you have Nugent, and Phillips came on, and there is that bit of quality which made the difference.”
Attempting to avoid a fifth successive defeat, McDermott gave home debuts to two recent signings of his own in Jimmy Kébé and Cameron Stewart, and the two wingers certainly gave his side a better shape.
More to the point however, Leeds ripped into their opponents from the start, harrying and tackling with a ferocity which would have pleased their combative former midfielder Bobby Collins, whose death last week was marked by a minute’s applause before the game started. Leicester, finding themselves on the back foot, lost their composure and began giving the ball away.
United should have taken the lead in the sixth minute when Varney, having picked up Moore’s poor clearance, crossed to McCormack unmarked in the centre of goal on the six yard line. With only City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to beat, to head against the post was a miss of almost criminal proportions.
McCormack was still shaking his head when Ritchie De Laet’s pass saw Jamie Vardy running clear between the Leeds centre-backs. From the right side of the penalty area Vardy drove against the outside of the far post.
It was pretty much the Foxes’ only opportunity during a half in which they appeared more intent on creating chances for their opponents. Schmeichel’s poor punch saw McCormack lob the ball back over him only for Matty James to head clear off the line, before Paul Konchesky’s appalling back-pass left the Leeds striker with only the goalkeeper to beat. A weak attempted chip allowed Schmeichel – formerly of Leeds – to make a save.
The chances kept coming for Leeds, but after Lees, no more than three yards from goal, had headed over instead of under Schmeichel’s bar, the pace understandably began to drop.
That Pearson had suggested to his players it would help if they matched Leeds’ aggression was evident when Anthony Knockaert and Wes Morgan were booked early in the second half. Even so, Stephen Warnock shot straight at Schmeichel and Moore’s dilatory distribution almost left Varney one on one with the Leicester goalkeeper.
Gradually, however, the game became more even in terms of possession and the chances had dried up completely by the time Pearson brought on Phillips.
“You could argue we were a bit fortunate, but from our perspective we showed different qualities,” argued Pearson.
“We did make errors, but showed that little bit of quality when we needed it to get the win. You need to be able to win in different ways.”
McDermott called for the takeover of his club by the consortium Sport Capital to be concluded as soon as possible.
“The people coming in are spot-on, the only thing they are thinking of is the good of Leeds United,” he said.
Leeds Utd (4-4-2): Kenny; Byram, Lees, Pearce, Warnock; Kébé (Peltier, 86), Brown, Austin Stewart; Varney (Diouf, 85), McCormack.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Schmeichel; De Laet (Wasilweski, 63), Morgan, Moore, Konchesky; Knockaert, James, Drinkwater, Dyer (King, 79): Vardy (Phillips, 75), Nugent.
Referee: Mike Dean.