THREE games to go and the Championship play-offs are too close to call. Qualification was on a plate for Leeds United a month ago but the pressure told over the Easter weekend and the club are suddenly swimming in it.
They have stuttered in patches since turning over champions-in-waiting Brighton on March 18 but yesterday was the first time when Garry Monk might have wondered if his squad were starting to choke. Defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers would have been a problem in any form. The way in which Leeds invited it left an unavoidable feeling of concern.
In a first half strewn with mistakes, Wolves lapped them up and scored the only goal, the least they had earned from a period in which Leeds came apart at the seams. Nouha Dicko produced a sharp finish beyond Rob Green in the 39th minute but the disjointed play which preceded his goal was symptomatic of the tension running through Elland Road. Green had already pulled off two excellent saves to keep the game goalless and Leeds had used up their lives.
Monk inspired some more energy and direction at half-time but the damage was done and for the first time in almost four months, Leeds find themselves outside the Championship’s top six with three games left, reassured only by the fact that victories from all of those fixtures will guarantee a position in the play-offs. The saving grace might yet be the fact that Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, the clubs directly above them, meet at Hillsborough on the final day.
Monk was plainly aware of the league standings at full-time, a table showing Leeds in seventh after 25 consecutive games inside the top six. He tempered criticism of the “one of the worst 45 minutes we’ve had all season” with a defiant tone about the ability of his players to recover in the weeks that remain. Paul Lambert, the Wolves manager, offered his own encouragement. “They’re well in the mix,” Lambert said. “It’s really tight to call and it could go down to the wire. If you’re asking me can they do it, absolutely they can.”
Lambert’s words oozed more confidence than Leeds’ body language yesterday; strangely introverted after the intense drama of Chris Wood’s equaliser at Newcastle United on Good Friday. Leeds were made to seem unshakable by that 95th-minute goal but Wolves played on very obvious nerves while failing to kill the game before half-time. Leeds’ reaction after the interval produced the sporadic threat of an equaliser either side of a penalty claim which wasn’t given but Monk was philosophical.
“In the first half we were waiting for something to happen and it cost us,” he said. “In the second half we tried to make things happen and that’s the way it has to be in these next three games. We can’t afford any more periods like that first half now.”
Elland Road has been a comfort blanket for him and his players for most of the season, a highly dependable venue acting as a makeweight for fragile form away from home. Monk’s side have recorded only one away win since the first day of February, in contrast to results at Elland Road. At the worst possible time, their consistency in West Yorkshire dipped.
Monk was consistent with his selection of players, retaining the line-up which started Friday’s gripping draw at Newcastle but failing to free them from the stress of the run-in. It would not have upset him to see Wolves missing £20m-worth of signings in injured pair Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro but Lambert threw experience to the fore and found a way of causing trouble. At the end of an in-and-out year, Wolves are still a long way from the beach.
The make-up of the Championship before kick-off was such that Leeds had no urgent need to keep an eye on events elsewhere but news of other scorelines were bound to filter through and Fulham were leading an Aston Villa team reduced to 10 men within minutes of the start at Elland Road. Word of the opening goal for Sheffield Wednesday at Queens Park Rangers followed soon after. Both Fulham and Wednesday were hoping for help from Wolves which nearly came in the 16th minute. Pontus Jansson and Gaetano Berardi crossed wires over a loose ball on the edge of Leeds’ box and Andreas Weimann unexpectedly found himself one-on-one with Green. Weimann was as surprised as anyone to see the goalkeeper in front of him and Green blocked his low shot after narrowing the angles quickly but that wobble exposed United’s anxiety.
It’s really tight to call and it could go down to the wire. If you’re asking me can they do it, absolutely they can.Paul Lambert on Leeds United’s play-off chances
Throughout the first half Leeds struggled to piece a performance together. Kalvin Phillips drew a low block from Andy Lonergan after spinning onto a pass from Alfonso Pedraza but Wolves were rarely forced to stretch themselves at the back. It was Green who was called into another good save on 23 minutes, pushing Dave Edwards’ volley around a post. Kyle Bartley’s sliding block then dealt with George Saville’s shot with Monk’s defence wide open again.
In amongst mistakes and blind passes which ran astray, Leeds fended for chances as Wolves saw several. Dicko’s left-footed finish on the half-hour flew inches wide of Green’s far post and it took until the last 10 minutes of the half for United press Wolves back. Bartley’s claim for penalty at a Pablo Hernandez corner fell on deaf ears and the centre-back saw an effort blocked before Jansson headed another corner over but Wolves had more than earned the goal which came their way six minutes before the break.
Jansson embarked on a long run upfield but lost possession, inviting Wolves to break. Ben Marshall slipped a pass into the feet of Dicko who met it first time with a deft finish across Green. There were only so many times Green could be asked to dig his defence out.
By the closing minutes of the first half, Hernandez was dropping regularly into his own half, drawn deep by the absence of any good possession. Monk could do nothing more than regroup at the interval, taking comfort from the fact that Green’s early saves had kept the game alive.
Wood was screaming for a penalty eight minutes into the second half when his cross hit Richard Stearman’s arm but referee Jeremy Simpson gave Stearman the benefit of the doubt. “Of course it’s a penalty,” Monk said. “His hands are above his head, he stops the cross going in. You see them given every time. But there are no excuses. It wasn’t good enough from us and there’ll be no excuses in the next three games.”
Monk blinked soon after, removing Liam Bridcutt and calling on Hadi Sacko’s pace, and Wolves’ swagger began to fade. A fingertip save from Lonergan prevented another of Monk’s substitutes, Souleymane Doukara, from levelling with a header on 73 minutes. Green was spectating by that stage, a mile from the action, but the view was not pleasant and Leeds were surging forward desperately when Kemar Roofe’s header from a 90th-minute corner was nodded off the line by Kortney Hause.
Simpson served up five minutes of injury-time, the same amount which rescued Leeds at St James’ Park on Friday, but there was no twist in the plot and when a last-gasp cross from Hernandez dropped to Wood, the striker’s header crashed over the bar. Monk can only hope that a play-off place is not heading that way.