Garry Monk and his players have been pushing the line that Leeds United are still some distance from the play-offs yet but a draw at Aston Villa last night kept one member of the chasing pack at arm’s length. In that alone they can find some consolation after a cruel episode at Villa Park.
On the verge of being beaten by Leeds for the second time in a month, Villa salvaged a result with an 86th-minute penalty which fell between two efforts from Leeds which smashed against the crossbar and failed by inches to kill the game. Without the equaliser, Steve Bruce’s squad would have trailed United by 10 points. Monk will simply tell himself that it should have been so.
Leeds’ head coach promised a “totally different” match at Villa Park having watched his side beat Villa 2-0 at Elland Road four weeks ago but what transpired was almost identical: a scrappy, even match which yielded Villa the better chances until Leeds scored in the second half and set about closing out the game with trademark assurance.
Pontus Jansson claimed their goal on 53 minutes, nodding in a corner with generous help from goalkeeper Mark Bunn before rattling the frame of Bunn’s net during Leeds’ next attack. Villa’s confidence was threatening to fail them and with the wind in their sails, Leeds edged towards a victory which would have broke the only remaining unbeaten home record in the Championship. They were nearly there when Liam Cooper handled a cross on 86 minutes and allowed Jonathan Kodjia to beat Rob Green from the penalty spot. Green had otherwise frustrated Kodjia all night.
Even then, Villa were forced to hang on as a deflected shot from Hadi Sacko came back off the face of Bunn’s bar and while Villa might have been two goals to the good before the crowd had settled in their seats early on, they were lucky to be level at full-time. It is easy to see why Kemar Roofe spoke this week about keeping an eye on automatic promotion. Leeds were on the verge of moving third when Cooper blundered and Kodjia struck.
United continue to play out their season against a litany of absences, the latest of them defender Kyle Bartley. The centre-back was expected to start at Villa despite the clash of heads with Luke Ayling which left him needing oxygen at Preston on Monday but a minor knee injury laid him low, leaving Cooper to fill a considerable hole in United’s team. Monk has been asking players to do that since the earliest minutes of the term, to largely impressive effect. Luke Ayling was immense defensively and Jansson was simply immense. Cooper put few feet wrong until his hand met the ball amongst a crowd of players.
Up front, Souleymane Doukara deputised for Chris Wood, though it was Monk’s decision to start Wood on the bench and stick with most of the side who routed Preston with style. His faith was understandable but Villa’s attitude did not allow the same freedom as Leeds enjoyed at Deepdale and Monk’s side were lucky to escape two mistakes by Kalvin Phillips in the first six minutes.
The midfielder chanced his arm in the opening exchanges by sending a back pass towards Green without looking, directing the ball to the feet of Kodjia. With United’s keeper to beat, Kodjia reacted ponderously and allowed Pontus Jansson to dive in with critical tackle on the penalty spot. The match continued in that way initially and when Phillips lost possession to Kodjia again four minutes later, Green pulled off a one-handed save to keep out the forward’s deflected strike.
Monk preferred Phillips and Liam Bridcutt to Ronaldo Vieira, the teenager whose performance had helped to see off Villa at Elland Road on December 3, and Leeds were in need of steady feet as Bruce’s side pushed the early pace. There was a sniff of a chance for Doukara as his lay-off failed to find an unmarked Roofe with Villa short of numbers at the back but it felt that the opening goal was more likely to come at the other end of the pitch. United’s prospects were not encouraged by the sight of Jansson dropping to the ground clutching a thigh on 20 minutes, calling for treatment from the bench. Monk had no centre-backs among his substitutes and only one defender in left-back Tyler Denton but Jansson drew breath and fought on, to the relief of everyone. It was just as much of a relief for Monk to see the sting taken out of Villa’s football as the game neared the half-hour.
In calmer circumstances, Leeds were able to settle and Doukara’s through-ball on 29 minutes set Hadi Sacko against Ashley Westwood in a race which Villa’s midfielder narrowly won inside the box. Green, however, was forced to divert a free-kick from Jordan Ayew before it dipped under his crossbar and as Leeds tried to defend the resulting corner, James Chester nodded a header inches wide. In the last 10 minutes of the first half, nonetheless, there were signs of Sacko getting at left-back Jordan Amavi in the way that he had when these sides last met four weeks ago. Twice the French winger got beyond Amavi on the byline but failed to find a blue shirt, allowing Villa to negate the danger. It still gave a strong hint at where Leeds might find some joy later in the game.
Neither Monk nor Bruce were tempted into changes at the interval but Ross McCormack – a substitute after his winning goal against Burton Albion on Saturday – had a spring in his step which said an appearance would come before long. He was on the field within four minutes of the restart as Jack Grealish succumbed to injury. Within moments, his whipped delivery from the right forced a full-length save from Green.
In spite of that, the threat of Sacko remained and his run which forced a corner on 53 minutes broke Villa’s concentration. Stuart Dallas whipped a delivery in and an unmarked Jansson produced a downward header which Bunn pawed at weakly and pushed into his net. Having criticised Pierluigi Gollini for failing to stop Leeds opening goal at Elland Road, Bruce had just as much reason to point the finger at the Italian’s replacement.
Spurred on by that, Leeds went for the jugular and when Villa buckled under another corner soon after, Jansson showed a defter touch with a superb volley which clipped the top of Bunn’s bar and flew over. Having taken to the field with the intention of winning the contest, McCormack was quickly dragged backwards in an effort to stop it slipping away.
Kodjia tested Green’s reactions with a goalbound volley and Ayew hammered a shot wide with 17 minutes to go but Pablo Hernandez, a replacement for Dallas, almost found the net with a chip which caught Bunn flat-footed.
Villa were relying purely on persistent pressure when Cooper jumped for a cross and met it with a hand four minutes from time. Referee Roger East initially awarded Leeds a free-kick but, after fierce appeals from Villa’s players, took advice from a linesman and penalised Cooper instead. Kodjia gave Green no chance with a strong finish to the keeper’s left.
Sacko, who was twice guilty of failing to lay on tap-ins for substitute Wood, also beat Bunn hands down with an 88th-minute shot which deflected up over him and against the bar, bouncing back out with no-one near enough to drive the ball into an empty net. Leeds were never likely to come closer than that and it took another superb reaction from Green to deny Kodjia a winner in injury time.
Monk must still have left Birmingham believing his players will go closer to promotion than Villa.