Big match verdict: Phil Hay on how set-piece came to Leeds United's rescue - again
Leeds United don't dabble in scruffy draws under Garry Monk and last night would not have been a good time to start.
It was in the post at Ewood Park until they dipped into their box of set-piece tricks and nailed Blackburn Rovers with an 88th-minute Pontus Jansson winner, giving Leeds a 2-1 victory.
The centre-back was in the perfect position to head home a hanging corner after a dreary match at Ewood Park exploded in an unforeseen way and produced three goals in the final 15 minutes.
Stuart Dallas scored the best of them, a crisp finish which drew first blood, but Jansson’s effort was critical, killing Blackburn off as quickly as Elliott Bennett had given Rovers sight of a draw.
Bennett’s finish from long range, bouncing cheaply past Rob Green, deflated Leeds after so much slogging in the lead up to Dallas’ finish on 75 minutes.
United’s football had risked parity for much of the night – long enough for Monk to shuffle his team at half-time – and Elliott’s 83rd-minute strike appeared to have condemned them to it.
But five minutes later Hernandez, Monk’s first substitute, dropped a perfect delivery onto Jansson’s head and the Swede did the rest.
The wild celebrations were are fierce as the sighs of relief.
Player Ratings: Blackburn 1 Leeds United 2The drama dug Leeds out of a hole which Monk might have lamented more deeply than Sunday’s FA Cup shambles at Sutton United.
It banked three points at a venue where Leeds would have expected to cash in and lifted some pressure from Sunday’s derby at Huddersfield Town.
Events at Ewood Park underlined again why Monk’s squad are headed for the play-offs.
It underlined why Rovers are in the bottom three, for all their bitter effort.
Aside from one chance in the first half, driven wide by Chris Wood, the flurry of goals was contrary to what had come before. If anything, the surprise at full-time was that the contest had not remained goalless and there were stages where Monk would have liked to have tapped into the business done on transfer deadline day.
Leeds acquired two wingers in the final hours of the January window, Villarreal’s Alfonso Pedraza and Swansea City’s Modou Barrow, and both might have weaved some magic as Leeds tried and failed to split Blackburn apart.
They looked on from the stands as Rovers grew in confidence in a combative second half, only to succumb to the set-piece routine which Hernandez has perfected.
The value of his accuracy spirals ever upwards.
Co-owner Andrea Radrizzani watched as Leeds toiled but without Massimo Cellino whose appeal against his 18-month Football Association suspension was heard in London on Monday.
Cellino’s ban – a legacy of Ross McCormack’s sale to Fulham in 2014 – was due to start yesterday but the FA agreed to delay the penalty pending the outcome of his challenge.
The FA told the YEP last night that it was still to receive confirmation of a verdict.
In Cellino’s absence Leeds reverted to type, in terms of line-up and demeanour and ignoring an unconventional mix of yellow shirts, blue shorts and yellow socks.
Monk’s only significant call was the omission of Hernandez, perhaps made with one eye on Sunday’s derby at Huddersfield Town, but Leeds turned in the steady, goal-free first half which has characterised their entire season.
An early chant directed at Monk by a 6,000-strong away crowd – drawing appreciative applause from him – told United’s head coach that any bitterness felt after the club’s pitiful FA Cup defeat at Sutton had been put to one side.
It was immediately apparent that Leeds’ system, set against Blackburn’s 4-4-2, would offer space between Rovers’ lines while giving up some in return.
The football was open and loose, reflecting a game which both clubs needed something from, but United’s pressure was more concerted and more effective in forcing Blackburn into errors.
One of several by Ryan Nyambe, a foul on Wood a foot outside Blackburn’s box, almost yielded Wood’s 21st goal after 22 minutes.
The free-kick was positioned at Hernandez’s range but in his absence, Wood sized it up and beat Steele with a curling shot which bent inches around the far post.
There was little more to the first half than that, aside from an early Jason Lowe effort which found the net after an obvious foul on Green, and Blackburn offered none of the threat that Jordan Rhodes used to pose without fail at Ewood Park in seasons gone by.
Penalty claims from Dallas and Eunan O’Kane, the first for handball and the second after O’Kane went down under Nyambe’s challenge, failed to interest referee Geoff Eltringham and Kemar Roofe headed wide after a crossfield pass from Gaetano Berardi opened up space for Luke Ayling to deliver the ball from the right. There was a sense of Leeds biding their time and avoiding risks too early in proceedings.
Blackburn came to life briefly at the end of the first half, with San Gallagher straying in from the left wing to draw a sliding block from Ayling, but one minute of added time teed Monk up for a very familiar team talk.
He had seen enough to convince him that an ineffectual Hadi Sacko – the target of some choice words from Wood shortly before the break – had seen enough of the night.
Hernandez was let loose from the bench but made no quick impression as Blackburn began to force the tempo.
Souleymane Doukara was next to appear, replacing Roofe on the hour, but Green’s fingertips soon prevented a Bennett free-kick finding the net.
Monk craved a stroke of genius and Dallas conjured it on 75 minutes, chesting down a pass from Bridcutt and drilling a first-time finish across Steele and into the bottom corner.
Blackburn managed to steady themselves and Bennett beat Green with a long-range strike which the goalkeeper saw late and failed to reach as it bounced beyond him but Coyle’s homework must have warned him about Hernandez’s corners.
With time running short, the Spaniard sent one up and Jansson dispatched it from an unmissable range.
That weapon is taking the Championship down.
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