Leeds fans will have two questions on their mind: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Though the festive charity single "Bielsa Rhapsody" never troubled the UK singles chart, United bettered that effort to go number one at Christmas, and in the most dramatic style, with a 95th-minute winner as they came from two goals down to beat Aston Villa at Villa Park.
Leeds’ second-half efficiency and attitude has brought deserved results this season under Marcelo Bielsa, and this was another game where they dug deep late on to prove their worth, Kemar Roofe firing home with just seconds to go.
Villa will be upset with the defeat, and for a number of reasons, the first being they started the better team and failed to prolong their grip. It was also typical of their recent style – though they showed attacking prowess, they also conceded heavily, making it now 14 goals in just six games, despite being unbeaten since October.
The first five minutes set the relentless tone for the afternoon, during which a clever move coming in from the left – matched with a static Leeds defence – saw the opener from the home side. As John McGinn touched it back in the box, who else would be flying in to scoop it over the keeper but Tammy Abraham? The striker has now scored nine times in his last seven games, and though Villa are thunderous going forward, his influence on the team in particular is only more evident with each game.
Villa continued to press high up the field and were quick to add to their tally just 17 minutes in. A skillful Jonathan Kodjia laid it off to Conor Hourihane just outside the box, with his shot curling into the bottom corner. Bielsa was on his feet, two of his assistants following after, all gesturing that players keep their heads up and carry on.
Under Bielsa’s tireless regime, Leeds always seem like they’re dealing with an injury setback. But it never appears to be a problem. Though they’ve been without captain Liam Cooper since the beginning of December, they’ve won every game since. And today they were also without Stuart Dallas and Patrick Bamford, the latter having just returned from a spell on the sidelines. It's just a testament to the plethora of promising strength in their reserves that Bielsa can trust youngsters to fill the gaps, with Leif Davis stepping in at left-back at the last minute and six more academy players on the bench.
Whether they were feeling the pressure or not of needing the win to go top, incompetence was rife in the first half for the visitors. They were struggling to find a way forward, keeping possession in defence, and their first shot on target didn’t come until 25 minutes in – a limp attempt from Mateusz Klich poked straight at the keeper. But as the game wore on, United’s tenacity began to shine through. The introduction of 18-year-old Jack Clarke gave an injection of pace down the left. Shortly before the hour, the teenager was given the space and time to wade into the box from the wing, tucking his shot past Orjan Nyland. It was his first for the club, but he didn’t celebrate. He had a comeback to divert his focus, and it was very much on.
The momentum began to switch as Leeds found their feet, making use of possession in a game that was now wide open. Five minutes later, a Pablo Hernandez’ corner was turned in by Pontus Jansson, rising above the Villa defence to head in the equaliser. It left the hosts with heads in hands, realising they were beginning to let the game slip. United should’ve also had a penalty moments later too, Glenn Whelan blocking a Kemar Roofe shot with his hand.
Though the chances continued for both sides right until the end, it was another Villa defensive mistake which led to the final killer blow. A weak header from Ahmed Elmohamady fell straight to Roofe in the box, the striker volleying into the corner, his arms outstretched as he ran towards the crowd. He’s been vital for Leeds this season in the final minutes.
The afternoon had started with the overbearing dominance of claret and blue cheers – a daunting atmosphere for any away team to face – but it ended with a hysteric sea of wintry coats in the away end, blue flares thrown on the pitch as their madness couldn’t be contained in their seats.
It needs to be repeated just how far Leeds have come under Bielsa. The difference is palpable. Despite the injuries they’ve picked up on the way, the Argentine has carved out another another gear for the team to slot into, especially in games where they’ve conceded first. This was another example of how they’ve been a team to come alive in the second half. How sometimes they almost need to be challenged with a goal to awaken that fighting spirit.
Leeds now go into their Boxing Day clash with Blackburn Rovers having won their last six. But the stat that may be on the minds of United fans might be that every team to be top of the Championship at Christmas since 2008 have eventually been promoted. They won't want to be the exception.
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