TWO clinical finishes from Mirco Antenucci enabled Leeds United to impressively take the scalp of Championship leaders Derby County with their most eye-catching victory of the season to date.
The Italian fired a brace in the space of seven minutes either side of half-time as United secured their long-awaited first win in 13 matches against bogey side Derby in uplifting fashion.
In what represented a true test of character after last weekend’s great give-away at Blackburn, United stepped up to the plate superbly to fire a reality check to Steve McLaren’s disappointing Rams.
In the process, Leeds secured their first triumph over their East Midlands rivals since September 2005, when a Rob Hulse treble saw them down the Rams 3-1 at Elland Road.
While match-winner Antenucci couldn’t quite emulate the feats of Hulse in taking home the match-ball, it wasn’t for the want of trying.
His finish two minutes before the break from Alex Mowatt’s cut-back was deadly as was his instinctive finish on fifty minutes after being supplied by the excellent Stephen Warnock - which took his tally for the season to seven.
It was a noteworthy afternoon all around for United, who recorded just their second victory in 11 games and first clean sheet in nine matches - to the delight of the vast majority of the 26,028 in attendance.
Neil Redfearn made one change from the side who lined up at Ewood Park seven days ago, but it was a considerable one with Giuseppe Bellusci restored to the heart of the United back four, with the fall guy being captain Jason Pearce, demoted to the substitute’s bench.
Warnock took the skipper’s armband in Pearce’s absence, with Derby also making just one change from the team who beat Watford last weekend, with fit-again Lee Grant replacing former United loanee Jack Butland, who has returned to parent club Stoke City.
A minute’s applause ahead of kick-off was held in memory of Blake Cairns, the younger brother of United reserve goalkeeper Alex, who was tragically killed in a car accident earlier this month.
A competitive half which saw five players booked - Liam Cooper, Tommaso Bianchi and Souleymane Doukara for Leeds and Derby’s Cyrus Christie and Omar Mascarell - and several others given a talking-to by referee Mick Russell produced few substantive opportunities.
But it was Leeds who made the most of the clear-cut chance that came their way two minutes before the break, with Antenucci finishing with aplomb after the Rams’ defence was undressed.
Derby’s record in the past decade against Leeds has been a truly staggering one, with the East Midlands outfit boasting an unbeaten 12-match sequence against their Yorkshire rivals, with that run yielding 11 victories.
The Rams were also entitled to head to Elland Road with a certain swagger, given their status as league leaders and run of three consecutive victories, with Steve McLaren’s men having won six of their previous seven matches on the road.
But free-flowing attacking play was in short supply with dangerman Jordan Ibe largely kept in check by Leeds and while some of their defending at times was a touch desperate, they managed to get the job done and keep the visitors out.
An early moment of danger saw Rams’ top-scorer Chris Martin, with 12 goals to his name already this season, almost presented with a chance in front of goal following Will Hughes’ pass, but his touch was heavy and the ball cleared.
At the other end, Ibe had to be alert to clear the danger with Sam Byram threatening down the right and while a decent spell of mini-pressure brought United a handful of corners, they came to nothing.
A lovely turn from Adryan in midfield did bring the crowd to their feet until he was felled by Mascarell before Grant punched clear just ahead of the lurking Doukara after the hosts pushed forward.
The first booking then arrived on 14 minutes after Bianchi was cautioned for bringing down Johnny Russell and soon after, Cyrus Christie incurred the wrath of Russell after a late challenge on Warnock.
Bellusci then showed his mettle to clear in the nick of time to deny Russell before Richard Keogh showed his defensive nous to block Antenucci’s pile-driver.
Doukara and Cooper were then cautioned in quick succession for fouls on Hughes with play becoming somewhat spasmodic, with neither keeper having anything worthwhile to do.
Mowatt, who grew into proceedings as the half went on, did eventually give Grant something meaningful to do with his 20-yarder turned away by the former Sheffield Wednesday custodian before alert defending from Warnock denied Russell after good play from Ibe.
Leeds proceeded to finish the half with assertion with Doukara dragging a shot wide after latching onto Lewis Cook’s header and not too long after, the hosts were in front.
Great work by Mowatt on the left saw him pull the ball back invitingly to Antenucci, who took aim and steered home a precision shot past the clutches of Grant, with Russell playing a good advantage in the build-up following a clear handball from Hughes.
The challenge for United ahead of the second half was to kick on after a major transfusion of confidence provided by Antenucci’s goal and the hosts were able to hail another major contribution from the Italian five minutes in.
Quality play down the left saw Warnock in the space and his cross was seized upon by Antenucci in the box and he then composed himself in front of goal before firing a shot past Grant from ten yards out - with his aim once again unerring.
A further indication of it not being Derby’s day arrived a few minutes after when play was brought back after Martin stupidly tripped Mowatt, halting the progress of Russell, who was momentarily free down the right.
That was further reinforced when the Rams were handed a very presentable free-kick opportunity after Cooper was penalised for fouling Christie as he homed in on goal after a meandering run.
Crucially, despite the indiscretion, Russell deemed it not worthy of a second yellow card, with the United defender a tad fortunate.
To add to the Rams’ pains, Mascarell’s meek free-kick was blocked by the defensive wall, another moment symptomatic of the visitors’ ordinary afternoon.
Russell then incensed home fans for a late foul on Adryan, which was the prelude to a booking.
McLaren soon played his hand by making a triple substitution with Simon Dawkins, Craig Bryson and Kwame Thomas all thrown into the fray.
But it was United who continued to have the upper hand, with Antenucci, clearly scenting his first hat-trick in English football, testing the reactions of Grant with a stinging low shot which was turned away.
United soon made their first change with Rudy Austin coming on for Bianchi, given a generous reaction from home fans.
It was another replacement, Dawkins, who was afforded the next sight of goal, as he stretched to get a decisive touch to Craig Forsyth’s low cross on the left, but he could not get a telling connection, to the relief of Leeds.
Man-of-the-moment Antenucci soon saw a well-struck effort whistle just wide as the hosts sought to put the game to bed.
Increasingly desperate, Derby poured bodies forward in the last ten minutes, with heroic defending from Warnock blocking Bryson’s cut-back, only for the loose ball to fall to fellow sub Thomas, with the goal at his mercy, but he blasted wastefully over.
Leeds United: Silvestri; Byram, Bellusci, Cooper, Warnock; Bianchi (Austin 68), Cook, Mowatt; Adryan (Tonge 90); Doukara, Antenucci. Unused substitutes: S Taylor, Berardi, Pearce, Dawson, Sharp.
Derby County: Grant; Christie, Keogh, Shotton, Forsyth; Mascarell (Bryson 66), Hughes, Hendrick; Russell (Thomas 66), Ibe (Dawkins 66); Martin. Substitutes not used: Roos, Buxton, Eustace, Coutts.
Referee: M Russell (Hertfordshire).
Attendance: 26,028 (2,779 Derby fans).