There are days like Saturday when little goes right and then, to the relief of Garry Monk, there are nights like last night.
The defeat which Monk hardly dared to entertain was duly avoided against Blackburn Rovers and victory came with the aid of the fine margins blamed by Monk for Leeds United’s poor start to the season.
A striker dropped by him came off the bench to open the scoring with his first touch of note and when a reply from Blackburn’s Marvin Emnes made Elland Road shudder with 13 minutes to play, Leeds had the nerve to dig out a win with a header from Kyle Bartley, scored in the nick of time.
Blackburn, the Championship’s bottom side, had found their voice after Emnes’ goal and were threatening to turn the game on its head when Bartley met Alex Mowatt’s flighted a free-kick with a firm, decisive touch. With three minutes to go Monk needed that desperately and Leeds held on through a long spell of injury-time which saw four successive Blackburn corners and a scramble to the finish. From the outset and amid heavy rain, it was that kind of edgy evening.
If Leeds and Blackburn were destined to produce a classic at Elland Road then horrific weather soon established a different plot and it was questionable whether many sides would have thrived as the heavens opened in the first half. A scrap ensued between two clubs who started the night in the league’s relegation places and will do it all again when they meet in the League Cup’s third round next Tuesday.
With the wind behind them after half-time, and with the electric Hadi Sacko driving the pace, Wood struck at a stage when only Leeds were chasing a win and it staggered Monk to see his side concede a horribly familiar equaliser. Emnes claimed it, scoring from the same range and at exactly the same height as Huddersfield Town’s Aaron Mooy beat Rob Green on Saturday. Leeds left him free and were made to rue the lapse, and that concession called for the strongest of backbones. Bartley, who last scored almost three years ago, kept his balance when the crucial moment came and the ball dropped to him at close range.
A point would have been a relief for Monk after Leeds’ first six games yielded only four but it went without saying that both of these sides needed a shot in the arm. For all the effort and energy of Monk’s players – clearly evident in last night’s performance – August did not return enough points or anywhere close. What Massimo Cellino made of it all is for him know. The Italian has been quiet recently and not just on the subject of his head coach. But the table looks more healthy with yesterday’s win on the board.
It did not taken Monk long to discover how pressure comes to bear at Elland Road and the clash with Blackburn was not a time for half-hearted decisions or risky tactics. Monk was bold with his team, re-establishing the 4-2-3-1 formation he persisted with throughout pre-season before abandoning almost immediately and bowing to a groundswell of opinion which suggested Wood should be dropped. In terms of identity – the issue which instigated Monk’s irritated interview with the BBC over the weekend – there was more of Leeds’ head coach about the line-up.
Blackburn did not set out to play to United’s strengths, however, and it was clear from the start that Owen Coyle had instructed his players to sit around or behind the halfway line and leave the bulk of early possession to Leeds. The first moment of angst was still Monk’s as Green clattered Sam Gallagher outside his box and earned a yellow card in the seventh minute. The direction of Gallagher’s touch, a header towards a corner flag, protected Green from a very early dismissal.
Blackburn almost made something of the free-kick as Craig Conway volleyed the rebound from Ben Marshall’s set piece over the crossbar but it proved a sole chance before the rain which had submerged parts of Manchester arrived over the Pennines. Monk quickly swapped his suit for a heavy jacket, braving the conditions as Coyle hid in his dug-out, and the weather did nothing to ease the tension of a contest which neither side wanted to lose.
The pressure from Leeds was sporadic and loose but half-chances came at a steady rate. Eunan O’Kane, on his debut after signing from Bournemouth, whipped a 25-yard shot over the crossbar and Luke Ayling was denied by a diving save from Jason Steele after Stuart Dallas found Rovers short of cover on the left.
The recall of Dallas and the inclusion of O’Kane, alongside Pablo Hernandez, was a nod by Monk towards the more experienced element of his squad – an answer to the pressure United were under – and Leeds controlled most of a first half which refused to properly come to life. Conway’s early volley was all that Blackburn created before half-time and in amongst the other issues there have been signs since the international break of greater assurance within Monk’s defence. A saturated pitch invited errors of all sorts but critical mistakes were minimal, despite palpable tension. Dallas had one of the better opportunities with a downward header which Steele grasped late in the half.
Blackburn’s closest effort before Emnes’ strike came a few moments into the second half when Marshall bested Liam Bridcutt in midfield and drove a low strike narrowly wide. Bridcutt pulled up during that attack, bothered by an ankle injury suffered before the break, and Monk was soon forced to replace him with Kalvin Phillips. Leeds worked increasingly towards Sacko on the right wing and as Rovers continually refused to commit, their defence gave in to him on 65 minutes.
The French winger went at Derrick Williams one too many times and his low cross deflected straight at Wood who, three yards out, could genuinely not miss. Wood had replaced Antonsson on the hour and barely touched the ball before then.
It punished Blackburn for allowing their performance to drift but through a raft of changes they found some direction and Emnes silenced Elland Road with a fierce finish from 25 yards. Nerves kicked in and Leeds began to panic, forcing Green to pull off two brilliant saves from Emnes and Gallagher.
But when Rovers conceded a free-kick out wide on 87 minutes, Mowatt picked out Bartley perfectly and Bartley made no mistake.
Blackburn failed to respond for a second time and Coyle, who faced chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ after Wood’s goal, was gesturing frantically in the technical area as the final whistle came.
The question being asked before last night was what defeat might mean for Monk.
It might mean curtains, or close to it, for his Rovers counterpart.
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