Big-match verdict: Whites pass latest test with flying colours

Gianni Alioski celebrates Leeds' second goal at Nottingham Forest. PIC: Simon Hulme
Gianni Alioski celebrates Leeds' second goal at Nottingham Forest. PIC: Simon Hulme

NOT quite the acid test, but head coach Thomas Christiansen felt Saturday’s trip to Nottingham Forest would be a good indication of Leeds United’s promotion credentials.

“I believe they will be one of the teams that we have to be with and deal with if we want to be in the upper part,” said the Dane.

Kemar Roofe after scoring the opening goal for Leeds at the City Ground. PIC: Simon Hulme

Kemar Roofe after scoring the opening goal for Leeds at the City Ground. PIC: Simon Hulme

Even after an unbeaten start to his Whites tenure, Christiansen’s new-look Whites arrived at the City Ground one place and one point below their hosts in fifth. Fifth, though, has quickly become third with an easy-on-the-eye Whites outfit passing their latest test with flying colours – 2-0.

With the flair of Gianni Alioski and Samu Saiz in their side, Christiansen’s Leeds ought to be in the top six to stay.

Times are a changing at Leeds as the City Ground has not been a happy stomping ground for the Whites in recent years. The club’s last five visits have yielded just two points. But the current Leeds outfit is a different breed to the one that regularly posting mid-table finishes. Evidence of that came with last season’s play-offs push under Garry Monk whose men ultimately fell short in agonising fashion when pipped into seventh by Fulham.

Monk has opted to take on a new challenge at Middlesbrough, who stuttered to a goalless draw at home to Preston at the weekend. Leeds produced the same result against the Lilywhites in their second league game of the season. Another goalless draw at home to Fulham followed, after which centre-back Pontus Jansson insisted it was only a matter of time before everything clicked.

Leeds United fans enjoy the 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. PIC: Simon Hulme

Leeds United fans enjoy the 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. PIC: Simon Hulme

“We defend really well together and now we have to just score the goals,” said the Swede, ahead of United’s visit to Sunderland. Samuel Saiz and Stuart Dallas both found the net at the Stadium of Light as United’s defence kept a third Championship clean sheet in succession. Make that four after Saturday’s visit to Forest in which Liam Cooper in particular excelled as United’s defence were rarely troubled, allowing Alioski and Kemar Roofe to net Christiansen’s side’s third win of the season from just five games.

Roofe again started in the lone striker’s role, fresh from his hat-trick in Tuesday night’s 5-1 defeat of Newport County in the second-round Carabao Cup clash at Elland Road. Forest, who had taken the scalp of Carabao Cup hosts Newcastle United, promised to present a rather tougher proposition.

Yet, if anything, United brushed Mark Warburton’s men aside in even more comfortable fashion.

Roofe took just 24 minutes to again back up his opinion that he is more effective deployed as a striker than a winger.

The sale of last season’s top scorer Chris Wood to Burnley for £15m and injury to United’s summer recruit Caleb Ekuban has suddenly elevated the former Oxford United player to become Leeds’ first-choice striker. Another new recruit, 19-year-old Dutch powerhouse Jay-Roy Grot will hope to change that.

Six-foot-four Grot had to settle for a place on the bench at the City Ground but was introduced as a 70th-minute substitute for Pablo Hernandez, taking up the lone striker role as Roofe reverted to being used as a winger. Grot made an immediate impression when charging for a long ball and flooring Forest defender Armand Traore through his sheer strength and power. Too much strength in the eyes of referee Jeremy Simpson.

But United had already been bullying Forest for the majority of the game with the hosts unable to live with Christiansen’s men’s free-flowing football and the mesmerising skills of Alioski and Saiz. After a cagey start, Saiz let fly from 20 yards in the seventh minute but cleared the crossbar. Leeds were then lucky to survive a dangerous Forest cross four minutes later which sailed through the Whites’ area and narrowly evaded Daryl Murphy.

It proved arguably Forest’s best chance of the game and United soon emerged on the front foot.

Through neat, quick and precise passing, Pablo Hernandez and Alioski both fired efforts wide before Saiz saw a dangerous attempt blocked. But Leeds took the lead their dominance deserved in the 24th minute when a 35-yard free-kick, taken by Hernandez, was nodded on by Cooper to Roofe, who produced a calm headed finish of which Wood would have been proud.

Alioski then squandered a headed opportunity to double United’s lead, after which Forest got their act together.

But two pieces of alert goalkeeping from Felix Wiedwald alleviated any danger as the German played the sweeper-keeper role to perfect effect. An outstanding tackle from Eunan O’Kane also prevented a potential golden opening for Kieran Dowell who blazed an attempt over the bar.

On a sultry afternoon, Leeds weathered the mini Forest storm and finished the half in the ascendancy with Saiz launching another effort over the bar, moments after Alioski had showed outrageous skill to outfox Traore.

Forest attempted to re-rally after the interval but United’s defence easily held firm and with the hosts looking to pile forward, Saiz and Alioski continually caused chaos at the other end, ably supported by marauding full-backs Luke Ayling and, in particular, Vurnon Anita.

Saiz wasted a fine chance as Leeds countered four-on-three, the Spaniard opting to shoot from range bu his low shot was saved.

Whites substitute Stuart Dallas went agonisingly close in the 84th minute when fizzing a low effort inches past the post.

But there was no saving Forest two minutes later when a crunching tackle from the excellent Kalvin Phillips presented the ball to Alioski who let fly with a delicious effort from 20 yards out that flew beyond the reaches of Jordan Smith into the bottom-left corner. The Macedonian winger raced away to celebrate in front of the 2,000 travelling Whites fans as the goal sparked an exodus from the followers of the hosts.

Leeds should have bagged a third two minutes later when Dallas fired a similar effort to his earlier attempt just wide.

But the damage was done – by a side that looks capable of making considerable headway in their quest to finally get back in the Premier League at the 14th attempt.

Gjanni Alioski celebrates scoring Leeds United's second goal against Middlesbrough.

Leeds United 2 Middlesbrough 1: Our season’s alive and kicking declares Christiansen