It seems unlikely that 50 points will be needed to fend off the Championship’s bottom three but Leeds United are getting there, dramatic step by dramatic step.
A breathless victory at home to Ipswich Town on Wednesday night, and a deserved one at that, edged them closer to a psychological barrier which might prove to be more than any second-tier club needs to retain their status this season. In a competitive sense, their campaign is almost done.
Survival is as much as Leeds have to play for and the virtual guarantee of another year in the Championship - their sixth in succession - has taken the tension from Elland Road. There was a laboured feel about yesterday’s game until a chaotic finish brought three late goals and a missed penalty, condemning Ipswich to a 2-1 defeat. United can go out this season knowing that they have played their part in the promotion race, without actually featuring in it.
Ipswich are hanging about on the fringes of the top six and their anxious position was done no favours by a demoralising visit to Yorkshire. The club’s manager, Mick McCarthy, used some skillful expletives to defend the value of a 1-1 draw at Elland Road last season but 13 months on the same result would have been less than enough. Billy Sharp’s volley - one of three goals in six minutes - and Marco Silvestri’s penalty save denied them even that.
Alex Mowatt looked to have won an uninspired match with a 71st-minute finish, another free-kick converted with precision from 20 yards, but his effort instead brought it to life. Ipswich substitute Freddie Sears replied in an instant, helped by a mistake from Silvestri, but Sharp’s exquisite strike from Lewis Cook’s cross sank the visitors’ shoulders before they could turn the screw. A penalty awarded on 84 minutes failed to rescue the visitors as Silvestri got a fingertip to Daryl Murphy’s attempt.
The match was nothing like the 4-1 hammering inflicted on Leeds at Portman Road before Christmas and Leeds were the superior side on a night when both clubs struggled to outdo the other. Sharp could have scored twice in the first half and it took Ipswich until the second to get at Silvestri. They found Leeds devoid of the defensive deficiencies which plagued them over the weekend, despite Neil Redfearn’s concerns about the state of his squad.
Requests by Redfearn for new signings appear to be falling on deaf ears at Elland Road and comments from chairman Andrew Umbers on Tuesday - reminding United’s head coach that he had a “good and large squad” to work with - sounded like a warning that none were coming.
Injuries are eating away at Redfearn’s pool of players but it was still his decision to pick a square-pegs-in-slightly-rounded-holes line-up yesterday. Giuseppe Bellusci’s return from a short ban pushed Liam Cooper out to left-back, a role he struggled in earlier in the season, and gave Charlie Taylor a run on the wing. Rudy Austin’s thigh strain kept him away from the squad altogether.
Redfearn’s defence on paper looked heavy on centre-backs but that area of the team had failed Leeds badly against Watford on Saturday, the target of criticism afterwards. The apparent bonus was McCarthy’s brave move in naming Murphy, the Championship’s top scorer, on the bench. It did not pay off as McCarthy hoped it would.
Murphy’s demotion opened the door for Luke Varney, a striker whose months at Leeds earned him few admirers and whose penalty-winning dive during United’s defeat to Blackburn Rovers in November cost him any he had in Yorkshire. He took only three minutes to rattle nerves with a disallowed goal.
United’s defence moved out quickly as a cross arrived in their box, leaving Varney to rise and plant a deadly header to the right of Silvestri. The forward turned away and gave the hint of a pre-planned celebration before an offside flag stopped him dead.
There were tiny fractions between both sides and the opening goal early on. Sharp thought he had claimed it on seven minutes but his volley from Lewis Cook’s cross, gifted to him when Luke Chambers lost his footing, struck the legs of Tommy Smith a yard from Ipswich’s line. Anywhere but there, to McCarthy’s relief.
Those early exchanges did not speak of 19-point gap between the sides and, as Cooper predicted after Saturday’s defeat to a lethal Watford side, the threat from Ipswich was very different. McCarthy’s side played the percentages, looking for flick-ons from Varney and crosses towards him and Chris Wood. The pair saw few and at the other end, Sol Bamba glanced a Murphy corner wide. Neither goalkeeper had a save to make before half-time as the football struggled to ignite the crowd.
Redfearn’s back four, comprising of four recognised central defenders, had more height and presence than the defence which caved in at Portman Road in December and Ipswich made nothing like the same impact. Bellusci and Bamba pinned Wood down and Varney’s running began to imitate the fruitless movement he made his trademark at Elland Road. McCarthy’s players were fortunate not to trail at the break after another good opportunity fell to Sharp 10 minutes before the break.
Chambers and Bartosz Bialkowski passed their way into trouble outside Ipswich’s box and when Chambers slipped with the ball at his feet, Byram had time to break forward and pick out Sharp’s run. The striker appeared to meet the ball with his chest and thudded it over the crossbar, protesting bitterly about a push in his back which referee Mark Brown did not see.
McCarthy, you sensed, had seen enough of his own side to make the most of the break and a closed dressing-room door. Ipswich came at Leeds immediately after the restart and Silvestri pulled off a low, one-handed save to push Tyrone Mings’ downward header past his right-hand post. Blocks from Bamba and Scott Wootton kept the visitors at bay as the same attack persisted in waves. Within minutes, however, Sharp was turning in front of Bialkowski and shooting into the keeper’s arms.
McCarthy made his first move after an hour but did not reach straight for Murphy, choosing to introduce Kevin Bru instead. Murphy appeared soon enough and Redfearn threw on Mirco Antenucci in an attempt to drag the match out of a scrappy stupor. The changes had the desired effect.
Mowatt was first to score after Bialkowski first forced Mings into conceding a free-kick and then allowed the set-piece to squeeze inside his near post, but Sears took to the pitch immediate and with 74 minutes gone forced a low effort under the body of Silvestri.
Sharp regained the lead just as rapidly, however, by converting Cook’s delivery with a sweet hit on the turn and it said it all about Ipswich’s night when Murphy failed to best Silvestri from the penalty spot after Bamba was penalised for handball. Leeds, by all calculations, are as good as safe.