Valentine’s Day at Elland Road and for 45 minutes Leeds United treated Bristol City in a way that would have made Al Capone proud. If the past month was Leeds’ traditional, post-Christmas lull then Garry Monk will settle for that, safe in the knowledge that better football is still in the pipeline.
Trouble came their way in the second half, serving to remind Monk that his side’s minor wobble has not been a figment of his imagination, but having sagged to a mundane level against Cardiff City on Saturday, periods of a 2-1 win over Bristol City were more like the swashbuckling defeat of Derby County which preceded a passage of four defeats in six games. Pablo Hernandez reprised that impressive night too.
The Spaniard created one goal with a stroke of class and scored the second with a stroke of luck, driving a shot in with the help of a deflection two minutes after half-time. The Robins’ manager, Lee Johnson, had already rolled the dice when Hernandez’s shot bounced past his goalkeeper, Fabian Giefer, and a spirited reaction came too late in the evening to peg Leeds back. There were obvious flaws in the second half, and Leeds owed a significant debt to Rob Green, but not enough to dampen Monk’s mood.
Green was beaten eventually by the last touch of the game, a Milan Djuric header which bounced in off the crossbar, but the 37-year-old reeled off a series of saves, the best of them from another Djuric header which had shades of David Seaman and Paul Peschisolido. An earlier concession might have caused havoc as City waded forward. Johnson’s players had not reached their own half after Djuric’s goal when the final whistle blew.
On Saturday Monk railed against the idea that his squad might be going backwards and the energy of his players in the first half seemed to rise to that accusation. Chris Wood opened the scoring on 27 minutes, his 22nd goal of a truly prolific year, but Leeds had been knocking on the door repeatedly before it arrived. Hernandez unlocked it with superb vision, catching City off guard with a deft free-kick to Wood’s feet.
Hernandez’s strike and a 2-0 deficit put City – a club without an away win in the Championship since September – on familiar turf and their game attempt to dig themselves out of a hole was thwarted by Green’s agility, either side of an Aden Flint volley which clipped the frame of his goal. Leeds had much reason to feel short-changed by a second-half penalty call which wasn’t given but the result resumed normal service and, before half-time at least, gave Elland Road the football it is accustomed to seeing.
Attention is fixed on on-field matters this season and that fact was underlined by the lack of attention on Massimo Cellino in what might be the final hours of his colourful relationship with Leeds. Valentine’s Day was a last hurrah for him, the last game before Cellino divorces himself from the club and begins serving a 12-month ban. The Football Association has ordered him to quit the Elland Road board by Saturday and he took the opportunity to cast one more glance over Monk’s side last night. He departs with the squad in the same, healthy position they have held for many months.
There was a degree of tension around Leeds before kick-off, created by a spell of form which was iffy at best. The suggestion that United had lost some zip did not wash with Monk but by recalling Hadi Sacko and Kemar Roofe, he replenished his team with players capable of providing more of it and fell back on a line-up which had worked for him previously. Pontus Jansson’s recovery from a throat infection was a bonus; Bristol City’s decision to name striker Matty Taylor on the bench another.
The first five minutes were enough to reassure Monk that a second home game in four days would not be as turgid or as negative as the first. Sacko’s pace had gone some way to unlocking Cardiff’s defence on Saturday, despite Leeds failing to avert a 2-0 defeat, and it was a problem for Bristol City from the start. One searching run in the third minute ended with Pablo Hernandez chipping a pass to an unmarked Roofe at the far post. At close range but full stretch, Roofe glanced a glorious chance over.
Within seconds, Green was palming David Cotterill’s free-kick wide and Elland Road had a contest worth watching. Despite the threat from Sacko’s running and the movement of an electric Hernandez, Bristol City’s ambition comfortably outweighed Cardiff’s and offered Leeds space to attack. Hernandez forced a low save from Giefer and both he and Roofe sent shots wide of the former Schalke keeper’s net. City kept Green active at the other end and minus any especially early goals, it quickly became an engaging exchange.
Roofe’s 22nd-minute header, created by some great industry from Jansson after Josh Brownhill flicked a Hernandez’s corner through his own box, was repelled on City’s goalline by Flint swinging a leg at it but City were oblivious to the delivery which cut them open and gave United the lead on 28 minutes.
Referee Jeremy Simpson penalised Jens Hegeler for a foul on Eunan O’Kane 40 yards out and Hernandez took the free-kick quickly, stroking the ball in behind City’s defence as Johnson’s side turned their backs and began to set up. Wood was alone in anticipating the Spaniard’s vision and met the ball with a slick finish which sailed past Giefer. City’s frustration with Simpson’s refusal to delay the set-piece earned Lee Tomlin a booking for dissent
The goal lit a fuse and in the passage of play that followed, Leeds cut City to shreds without punishing them again. Johnson was not helped by the loss of top-scorer Tammy Abraham to injury on 37 minutes, bringing Taylor into the fray but leaving City with a very small line of attack. Despite that, it took an urgent parry from Green to keep out a Joe Bryan strike in injury-time after Cotterill found him with a searching pass towards the left wing.
The sense that things were going against City, however, were fuelled at the start of the second half by Johnson sacrificing a full-back in Mark Little, employing a three-man defence and launching 6ft 5ins Bosnian Djuric up front. Two minutes into the second half the experiment was rendered useless as Hernandez’s shot from 18 yards deflected off Flint, beat a wrong-footed Giefer and put Leeds at arm’s length.
City’s prospects of reeling them in looked grim but they fought on regardless, with Tomlin guiding a lob narrowly over the bar and Bryan and Djuric testing Green, but Luke Ayling was incensed when Simpson refused to award a penalty after his cut-back on 68 minutes smacked against Flint’s arm. It would have mattered had Green not flicked a Djurcic header off his line with 16 minutes left, as good a save as Elland Road has seen all season, and by the time Djuric knocked a corner in off the bar in the sixth minute of injury-time, Simpson was waiting to blow up.
With City attacking in waves, it was as well for Leeds that he did.