Optimistic calculations give Leeds United a slender chance but the gut feeling says the damage is done and that Sheffield United’s grip is too tight to ease now.
Leeds were in the Blades’ hands at the end of Good Friday and moreso yesterday after the Sheffield club gutted Hull City at the KCOM with depressing ease, guaranteeing themselves another win by half-time.
Ipswich Town, the Championship’s relegated stragglers, are next up for Chris Wilder’s team and Leeds need more favours than they would like to count on after a 2-0 defeat at Griffin Park.
Friday’s loss to Wigan Athletic felt damaging. Their inability to take anything away from West London might well be terminal.
Marcelo Bielsa has the play-offs as his fall-back but it is a distant third prize with the top of the Championship so open and tight, and any knowledge of history at Elland Road will tell him that Leeds and the play-offs have never mixed well.
The mathematics in the table could still spare them that agony but Norwich City are gone and Sheffield United’s goal difference will make automatic promotion a near formality if they inflict Ipswich’s 25th defeat of the season.
Leeds require snookers, if not quite a miracle, with only a couple of balls left on the table.
Bielsa’s players tied up badly over the Easter weekend and the issue which has worried him most this season – overwhelming possession leading to too few goals – took a deep bite at the worst possible time.
Wigan drew blood in a way which Leeds could not and at the end of a tame first half against Brentford, Neal Maupay scored to set up a result which gave Norwich and Sheffield United the breathing space they were looking for.
Sergi Canos sealed it on 62 minutes and the only consolation for Bielsa on the journey home was that a top-six finish was banked a good while ago.
For Leeds there was the oddity of needing a victory at a ground where any supporter who had seen them win there in the past is now beyond the age of 70.
United have not been regulars at Griffin Park over the years but more recent trips have followed a similar theme: of Leeds wilting in a small, cosy stadium against Brentford – teams with pace and purpose. Again, the same was true.
Rarely have they travelled there with so much weight and stress on them.
What looked like a taxing fixture for Sheffield United at Hull yesterday afternoon turned into a procession as three first-half goals gave the Blades satisfaction and a cushion without breaking a sweat.
Leeds were drenched in it after their baffling failure at home to Wigan Athletic on Good Friday and Bielsa played a brave card by dropping Kalvin Phillips on the back of it, dispensing with one of the players he has come to trust most. His team were not improved by that call.
Liam Cooper, though, was fit and thrown back into a defence who were unpicked against Wigan by the brute force of Leon Clarke and the speed of Gavin Massey.
It was Cooper’s tackle on Mads Bech Sorensen which sent Tyler Roberts clean through in the fifth minute, only for Roberts to overhit his first touch and give Luke Daniels time to slide and smother the ball.
Before long, Cooper was crouched on his haunches and in dialogue with the bench about the muscle strain which forced him to miss the last two games. The defender continued as Stuart Dallas began warming up but by the 12th minute, Dallas was on the field after left-back Gjanni Alioski succumbed to an injury off the ball.
The strain of a long season finally caught up with the seemingly indestructible Maecedonian.
Luck did not run for Bielsa early on and referee Keith Stroud gave Julian Jeanvier the benefit of the doubt after Bamford went down under his lunging tackle inside Brentford’s box in the 17th minute.
Jeanvier did not appear to reach the ball but Stroud had a close look before waving Bamford’s angry protests away and letting Jeanvier slope away quietly.
Brentford’s interplay and ambition bothered Leeds from the start at Elland Road in October but their clout has shrunk since Aston Villa tempted Dean Smith away from the capital and the early openings they saw were largely the openings Leeds allowed them to have.
Canos fired over the crossbar after Cooper momentarily lost sight of the ball and Pontus Jansson was awake with a sliding tackle when Maupay ghosted in to take Ollie Watkins’ flick on the half-hour.
Bielsa’s defence were more stretched after Canos’ run took him through three tackles and presented Rice Henry with a chance which deflected wide but the first half went by without either goalkeeper making a save until the 39th minute, when Casilla’s athleticism got a hand to a curling effort from Canos which was threatening the top corner. Leeds, as is their way, hogged possession without stretching Daniels at all.
Their blunt edge cost them on half-time when Canos fed a simple pass between Cooper and Jansson and invited Maupay to drive the ball past Casilla from the edge of the box. That Tyler Roberts should have equalised within seconds but dragged a finish wide of Daniels’ far post told a story of far more than one match in isolation.
The second half was a mirror image; Leeds on the front foot but causing Daniels only cursory problems. The keeper tipped a shot from Dallas over his bar and parried a low cut-back from Roberts but Roberts’ imprecise evening ended soon after as Bielsa sent on Kemar Roofe.
Roofe had barely touched the ball before Canos scored Brentford’s second, finishing off a move involving Maupay and Ollie Watkins with a silky chip over Casilla on 62 minutes.
That clinical finish from Brentford’s first meaningful attack of the half said everything about where Leeds were going wrong and where this season might ultimately fall down.
A helpless Bielsa barked at his players from the dug-out, pacing all the time and desperate for anything. All bets are off at Elland Road.