DCSIMG

Leeds United v Chelsea: Whites fade after a promising start

Luciano Becchio holds off Ryan Bertrand.

Luciano Becchio holds off Ryan Bertrand.

  • by Phil Hay
 

In the end, the tired bodies in Chelsea’s squad were impervious to the spirit of Revie, Bremner and even father’s gun.

They will remember last night with no great pleasure but the night at Elland Road was theirs nonetheless.

Their squad travelled more than 6,000 miles to meet an appointment in Leeds and five second-half goals made the journey worthwhile.

They left with a League Cup semi-final to look forward to and adequate proof that Leeds United have not lost interest in this famous rivalry.

Midway through a gripping quarter-final, progression to the last four of the Capital One Cup was United’s to lose.

Lose it they did in a flurry of finishes after half-time, the sort of clinical salvation that Chelsea’s billions buy you. It might yet buy Rafael Benitez his first trophy as manager after last night’s anxious win.

Prior to Chelsea’s show of precision, the disparity in the clubs’ modern-day stature and wealth was nowhere to be seen, and the signs of a long flight home from Japan were everywhere in Benitez’s team.

Fuse

When Luciano Becchio opened the scoring late in the first half, igniting Elland Road’s fuse, there was tangible concern within Chelsea’s ranks and comfortable through they were by the final whistle, they cannot tell their predecessors at Stamford Bridge that visits to Leeds are getting easier.

United embraced the arrival of European champions in the spirit of yesteryear, appreciating the rough history of a fixture played more than 100 times. Ambitious throughout, Leeds paid for isolated moments of weakness – an error by goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown and lax marking at two critical moments shortly after the hour. League games between the clubs have been more one-sided than this, despite the scoreline.

Ashdown’s mistake in failing to stop a low shot from Juan Mata a minute into the second half was impossible to disguise but the performance of United’s second-choice keeper – their man for the Capital One Cup – was immense in the main.

Respectability oozed from Neil Warnock’s team as a whole, even after late strikes from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres prompted a steady evacuation of a capacity crowd from Elland Road.

At the start of the season, Warnock promised his daughter Amy that he would attempt to win this competition.

He looked her in the eye last night knowing that he and his squad could not have done more.

Benitez was ultimately rewarded for rolling the big guns onto United’s lawn and committing heavily to the tie with a team as strong as Chelsea could realistically have been.

Torres alone was worth the value of Warnock’s squad several times over and parts of Benitez’s bench glittered in the bright lights and drifting rain. Jet-lag seemed like a soft excuse.

Chelsea restricted themselves to the briefest of warm-ups and theirs was the colder of the two starts. United’s trick in previous rounds had been to pick off Everton and Southampton before either side could get going and Warnock’s pre-match instructions were unmistakable.

Brought into the midfield at the expense of David Norris, the aggressive presence of Michael Brown led the examination of Chelsea’s hide.

The rivalry between these two clubs was built on a mixture of talent and aggression and for half an hour, Elland Road saw more of the latter. Frank Lampard danced delicately around a booking after catching Sam Byram’s ankle and Brown’s tussle with David Luiz on 13 minutes ended with the two players staring each other out. In the days when anything went and Billy Bremner filled the number four shirt, they would have exchanged punches without thinking twice.

Lampard’s card was marked by his early foul and when he slid through El-Hadji Diouf five minutes later, referee Andre Marriner rightly cautioned him. Chelsea’s more refined players could only stand back and wait for the contest to subside. It rarely did.

Moses, a player who Warnock coached at Crystal Palace, forced Jamie Ashdown’s first save of the night when he carried Oscar’s pass forward and stroked the ball against the goalkeeper’s torso, and Torres bundled an impossible chance wide after Marko Marin got free on the right wing but the game was devoid of any structure or pattern. Drenched but engaged on the touchline, Warnock had no problem with that.

Lampard attempted to hold the halfway line but found Brown and Michael Tonge on his back, full of running and full of fight. An animated Benitez, who shook Warnock’s hand as planned before kick-off, had words with the fourth official and some of his own players when a foul on Brown halted play.

From time to time before Becchio’s goal, Leeds fashioned chances. Jason Pearce headed Diouf’s free-kick a yard in front of Tom Lees with Chelsea’s defence ball-watching on 11 minutes and then failed to trouble Petr Cech from a far better position, again beneath a Diouf delivery. But Moses’ shot on 22 minutes, bringing a two-handed parry from Ashdown, began a spell of pressure which Leeds did well to survive.

Juan Mata created an opening for himself by dropping a shoulder and attacking Ashdown with a strike which deflected behind as the keeper stood flat-footed, and repeated attacks down the right wing were fended off by disciplined defending. Chelsea’s attempts to work Torres into the game, and his own attempts to contribute, were largely hopeless.

United had the same problem with Becchio – an anonymous presence for much of the first half – but when the striker emerged from his shell for the first time in the 37th minute, his nose for a goal blew a hole in Chelsea’s side.

David Luiz’s risky pass left his side short of numbers as Tonge sprinted out of his own half and Jerome Thomas tore open Benitez defence before squaring the ball to Becchio with the outside of his foot. The striker held his balance and did nothing stupid with his finish, tucking it past Cech. Elland Road had been building up to that moment for minutes, hours, days and weeks.

Chelsea were understandable rattled and their passing became twitchy. Moses tapped the ball into the net but was pulled back by an offside flag and Lampard drew two creditable blocks from Ashdown but Cech looked less than sure about his positioning when Lees nodded a cross onto the roof of his net in the last minute of the half. There was tangible urgency in among those in blue shirts.

It eased immediately a minute into the second half when the impressive Ashdown allowed an 18-yard shot from Mata to brush away through his hand and roll limply over the line. The blue flare which exploded among Chelsea’s end was a metaphor for the release of considerable relief.

Ashdown looked like easily-beaten keepers do but he kept his head and forced Chelsea back in the 59th minute by meeting Torres’ hanging header with a rigid glove. Benitez, however, sensed an opportunity and threw on Hazard. Five minutes later, Ivanovic charged in to crash Lampard’s header into the back of the net from close range.

After a period of fluent passing and steady pressure, the shoulders of United’s players inevitably sagged. There were resigned faces all round 60 seconds later when Moses appeared at the edge of the box and whipped a low shot inside Ashdown’s right-hand post. The tie went up in smoke with that and Hazard and Torres took advantage of a tired and defeated defence in the last 10 minutes by dispatching simple chances. It was a cakewalk at the end of an evening when Chelsea and Benitez might easily have been toast.

 

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