THE EVENTS of Good Friday sharpened Leeds United’s attention before the club had kicked a ball but the night’s sleep that followed was sounder than it might have been, if only by the grace of injury-time.
A play-off place, as Garry Monk said on Thursday, is Leeds’ to throw away and behind them came the sound of the cavalry charging yesterday.
Leeds have held it back for more than four months now, maintaining an unbroken run in the top six of the Championship which goes back to the last weekend of November, but the examination in front of Monk’s players is unlike most others passed by them this season: four games to go with an advantage of three points over Fulham in seventh, at a stage where clubs dare not drop out.
Monk will take that margin happily after the drama at St James’ Park last night, where Chris Wood averted defeat by robbing Newcastle United in time-honoured fashion. With the clock ticking down on a Newcastle onslaught, Wood timed his run to meet Kemar Roofe’s cross and stab a volley into the corner of the net as the game ran into the fifth minute of stoppage time. It was a piece of quality which Monk had been crying out for from the start of the second half.
The pressure of the situation had barely showed in Leeds before half-time and though the league table had taken a turn for the worse, courtesy of wins for Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday, there were little wrong with United’s football until Newcastle began to turn the screw. Rafael Benitez’s side are themselves counting fixtures and points with Brighton pushing towards the title and Huddersfield refusing to let the top two go, and yesterday’s game was end-of-season football at its best.
The frame of both goals were shaken in the first half and at the midway stage of a match which raged in front of 52,000, a draw did not look like a poor result for either club; enough to push their noses a little further ahead of the side hovering behind them. Alfonso Pedraza was first to go close, rattling the underside of the crossbar with Leeds’ first chance, but Rob Green’s right-hand post kept out a Yoan Gouffran shot as Leeds clung on in a breathless period. Having taken the best part of 40 minutes to feel their way into the match, Benitez’s players dominated ruthlessly from then on.
Newcastle’s control of the second half underlined why they are a handful of good results from the Premier League while Leeds are plotting a path to the play-offs but the result proved again why United are refusing to slip away. Jamaal Lascelles broke their resistance with a 68th-minute goal, a header from one of Newcastle 19 corners. Leeds did not see any but Newcastle let them off the hook and as a third straight away defeat loomed, Wood’s stepped up and snatched his 28th goal of the season with his only chance of the night.
With a precious point in his hand, Monk had the additional consolation of knowing that none of Leeds’ remaining fixtures will serve up opposition like this.
The selection issues beforehand were more pressing for Benitez, albeit with the aid of a much larger squad than Leeds possess, but the absence of injured top scorer Dwight Gayle felt immaterial until missed opportunities crept up on Newcastle.
Monk’s one change saw Liam Bridcutt replace Ronaldo Vieira in the centre of midfield, an experienced head chosen over a teenager but only on account of an illness which affected Vieira on Thursday.
Even the normally reserved Monk could not resist a wild celebration.The YEP’s Phil Hay
Though that spell of his career was a slightly unhappy one, Bridcutt had a past association with Sunderland on his side too. To begin with he put his foot in as a player in that local rivalry would but was chasing shadows by the time Monk substituted him.
Newcastle have been starved of Tyne-Wear fixtures this season and the city’s local newspaper went as far as calling yesterday’s their closest thing to a derby. Benitez himself said he was happy for his team to take a “derby approach” and a packed stadium gave it that feel. Fast and furious football broke out quickly and Leeds were narrowly denied the opening goal in the ninth minute.
Pedraza attacked the loose ball from a Pablo Hernandez free-kick with a curling finish off his weaker right foot, rattling the underside of Newcastle’s crossbar. Kemar Roofe followed in with a hanging header but was denied by a desperate save from Karl Darlow. Beaten hands down by the first strike, Darlow’s right glove beat away a second which Roofe seemed certain to bury.
That near miss told Monk that his players were capable of getting at Benitez’s defence and causing more havoc than they had in the first meeting between the clubs in November, the last result which forced Leeds beneath the top six. Until the very end of the first half,
Newcastle tried to make Leeds think the same without great success. A Matt Ritchie shot was blocked by Pontus Jansson at the near post after Lascelles headed down a corner but Jansson’s knack of appearing in the last ditch at the right time stopped Newcastle from raining early chances down on Rob Green. For 20-odd minutes, control of the midfield belonged to Leeds as Bridcutt and Kalvin Phillips squared up to Jonjo Shelvey.
Shelvey, nonetheless, drew a diving save from Green with a corner which was curling inside the goalkeeper’s post and Matt Ritchie’s whipped shot from wide on the right was a worthwhile effort which careered a few yards over. A flurry of Newcastle corners came around the half-hour but Pedraza was close again with a low, 35th minute effort driven a few yards off target.
Having left Hernandez with a cut and bandaged head early in the game, Shelvey’s composure frayed again with a lunging foul on Bridcutt which failed to yield a booking from referee Chris Kavanagh.
From nowhere, however, Leeds were made to wobble badly in the last five minutes of the half. Gouffran almost punished Hernandez’s loss of possession by smashing the ball against Green’s right-hand post and from the corner that followed, Green beat Chancel Mbemba’s header over his bar. Ayoze Perez was inches away from converting the next delivery with a shot on the turn which deflected wide.
Green was involved again at the very start of the second half, diving to his right to meet a goalbound free-kick from Ritchie, and Jansson edged to within one booking of a three-match ban when he was yellow-carded for handball outside United’s box. The Swede’s importance was shown again after the hour when Mitrovic chipped a weak header from Luke Ayling over Green, only to see Jansson recover and force the ball behind.
With Newcastle wading forward, however, Leeds were liable to crack and Green was finally beaten in the 68th minute after the umpteenth corner the defence in front of him had faced. Lascelles finished off Gouffran’s delivery with a glancing header and Green’s attempt to scoop the ball away with his left hand failed to stop it crossing the line. From a good vantage point, linesman Philip Dermott called it correctly.
Newcastle refused to sit on that goal and Green’s net remained under siege, leading to more impressive saves from a keeper who could not have done more to stem the tide; the best of them a point-blank parry from Perez.
Wood found himself lost in front of an increasingly tepid Hernandez and by the final minutes it seemed that Monk’s instruction to his players not to freeze as they did against Newcastle in November around had fallen on deaf ears.
But with St James Park counting down the fifth minute of injury-time, Roofe curled in a cross in from the left and Wood leapt to stab it past a flat-footed Darlow. Even the normally reserved Monk could not resist a wild celebration.