All eyes on Fulham after Leeds United took care of their own interests at St Andrews last night. A 3-1 win over Birmingham City left the Elland Road club looking this afternoon for a result which knocks Fulham further back in the race to catch them.
Eleven points is the gap to seventh, the position Fulham hold, and the only conceivable threat to Leeds’ play-off place receded again after a wet, nervy and improbable victory in England’s second city. Fulham have games in hand – one at home to Preston later – and the potential advantage of hosting Leeds on Tuesday but United’s visit to Craven Cottage is not quite the all-in shoot-out it might have been. A top-six berth is where Garry Monk wants it; in his own hands.
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Control of yesterday’s match was somewhere else as Monk took an elevated seat in the stands at St Andrews, serving a one-game touchline ban, but the continuity he promised was delivered by the result as Leeds beat Birmingham with one goal from Alfonso Pedraza and two from Chris Wood, the one player above all who Monk cannot afford to lose at this stage of the season. Much has been said about the suspensions hanging over three of Leeds’ defenders but Wood’s form is increasing irreplaceable.
United maintained a clean sheet in the first half as Birmingham swarmed forward and struck the crossbar at the end of it. Amid fairly one-way pressure, Wood turned a half-chance on 15 minutes into the opening goal with a split-second decision to lob Tomasz Kuszczak from an unfavourable angle. The 25-year-old has been Monk’s top scorer for long enough. That strike at St Andrews made him the Championship’s.
City’s dominance promised an equaliser and Craig Gardner produced it with a deft strike from long-range after the hour, drawing blood as Leeds looked ready to fold. But four minutes later, Kalvin Phillips teed up Wood for the easiest of tap-ins and Wood devoured another priceless chance.
It was priceless not only because of its impact on the division but because of the extent of Birmingham’s pressure. The narrow escape when Robert Tesche rattled the bar before half-time was followed by a goalline clearance and a close-range parry by Green which kept City out at the start of the second half. Gardner’s strike felt inevitable but Wood responded almost instantly and Pedraza stepped off the bench to pinch a sweet, winger’s goal 10 minutes from time. City’s form has been dismal under Gianfranco Zola but it could not have been said that his side failed to play for him. They simply lack forwards with the same instinct.
Monk wore a pensive look in the worst moments and the introduction of the combative Phillips for Eunan O’Kane just before the hour said much about the way the contest was going. In the end, Phillips’ adventure forced the issue and Leeds will bank the result feeling total satisfaction with the scoreline. It will occur to Monk, however, that his side might run aground in the play-offs playing as they did over 90 minutes.
United’s head coach tried to negate the conditions and the pouring rain with a solid line-up, naming all of his quicker players – Pedraza included – on the bench. The make-up of his team should have suited the weather, if not the purists, and Monk inadvertently picked a good evening to stay under cover. His assistant, Pep Clotet, had the job of running the dug-out for the second time this season.
Zola, Birmingham’s somewhat out-of-place coach, does not have the luxury of straying far from coalface after two wins from 16 games, and two since City dispensed with Gary Rowett in December. Rowett was a guest in Sky Sports’ studio last night and it took all of 15 minutes for Birmingham to do what they have done so often since the board at St Andrews told him to clear his desk.
There was little wrong with City’s impetus before the opening goal and nothing in Leeds’ early display to enthuse Monk or promise the goal that Wood delivered at the first opportunity. When it came, it was taken with the sort of lethal touch that is pushing United’s top scorer towards 30 for the season.
It arrived in the aftermath of a Birmingham corner, conceded by an alert save from Green which tipped a Che Adams strike wide and atoned for a miscued header by Pontus Jansson. Green swept up the corner and played the ball to Luke Ayling whose long pass forward picked out Wood’s run towards City’s box. Ryan Shotton misjudged the flight of it and Wood stretched out a boot to guide the ball over a stranded Kuszczak, who knew immediately where the chip was landing. There is nothing so certain in the Championship as the accuracy of Wood’s finishing.
Leeds have relied on it countless times and retrieving the ball from the net was Kuszczak’s only job in a first half where Birmingham pressed on with persistence if not the greatest conviction. David Davis was central to much of their pressure, whacking one shot wide from a better position than his effort did justice to and sending another into the side-netting. Gardner’s free-kick on the half-hour had Green scrambling backwards as it threatened to drop under the crossbar before landing on the roof of the goalkeeper’s net. Monk had warned of City’s zest, replenished by Zola’s first away win at Wolverhampton Wanderers last Friday, but Zola must have been just as clear in highlighting Leeds’ capacity to bury anything that came their way.
United’s have survived on that trait throughout the term, evident again a week ago when their only shot on target – Wood’s, naturally – accounted for Sheffield Wednesday at Elland Road. Last night their football was as economical as it was effective, even if they conceded far more possession than Monk would have wanted. A better team than Birmingham might have made the imbalance pay but City’s top scorer, Lukas Jutkiewicz, was on the bench after a recent hamstring strain and two minutes before half-time, the frame of Green’s goal dealt with their best effort of the game.
Tesche produced it after Jansson nodded another corner clear, sizing up the rebound and smashing it past Green from 25 yards. The bar was still shaking by the time Green regained his feet and laid his hands on the loose ball.
Monk’s suspension did not stop him addressing his players at the interval but by the sixth minute of the second half, Kyle Bartley was called upon to clear from Green’s goalline as Adams met Maikel Kieftenbeld’s cross with a downward header. Green then stood up at his near post to repel another goalbound attempt from Adams. Clotet sent on Phillips to shore up the centre of the pitch but the dam burst on 63 minutes as shot after shot ended with Gardner curling one low into Green’s bottom corner from all of 30 yards. It felt as if City would need a strike so clean and clinical.
Leeds’ nerve was tested and held superbly. Four minutes later, Souleymane Doukara spotted Phillips’ burst into the box and picked him out with a pass which Phillips managed to cross before losing his footing. Wood could not believe the empty net in front of him but was not about to waste it either. Pedraza made his entrance soon after and made his mark in the 81st minute by running onto Pablo Hernandez’s pass and beating Kuszczak at his far post. The smash-and-grab drama brought to mind three words: meant to be.
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