A PRESSURE game they called this fixture but only one club felt it and only one club will be feeling it this morning.
On the evidence of last night Leeds United would back themselves from a standing start in a race with Derby County to the play-offs but a blistering first half – a half like little Elland Road has seen in years – put eight points and clear water between them.
Garry Monk won’t ever count his chickens but even he must have felt the tingle generated by a walkover against a team who are, or were, in direct competition with Leeds for a top-six finish. Derby lost to the only goal of the night but were drowned by the drive of a team who look like they are playing for promotion now. As the weeks and fixtures go by, the Championship must be asking who will stop Leeds and how. Derby had no answers.
County spent the weeks before Christmas beating the division up but the opening 45 minutes at Elland Road shook them senseless, to the point where Monk’s defensive issues were as irrelevant as Derby’s attack. Leeds compensated for a weakened backline by keeping Derby away from it as corner followed corner, chance followed chance and Chris Wood scored on half-time. The striker’s header, his 17th goal of the season, came as Derby assumed they had made it to the sanctuary of the break. Once his header beat Scott Carson, County were comprehensively broken. Their bid for the play-offs is creaking too.
Leeds have been in that zone for so long that the club can hardly remember being out of it. Monk might not be fixated on promotion, his words before a pivotal match yesterday, but the club can smell it and as his players enjoyed the better of a more even second half, the confidence of the crowd was tangible and infectious. Even in the dying seconds, with Derby desperate for a final chance, Monk’s players could not resist attacking at will. Elland Road has fallen in love with their sense of adventure.
Up in the East Stand, Andrea Radrizzani – attending his first game since becoming a co-owner of Leeds – cast an admiring eye over the squad he bought into last week. He has followed the season from afar but closely enough to know that United have not played better than this. Four points short of second place, they have not been better placed either. He has much reason to be cheerful when he appears at a press conference today.
United’s form continues to defy the concept of first-choice players, as it has for weeks. There was no Pontus Jansson last night, banned for the first of two matches, but Luke Ayling gravitated into the centre of defence and coped like the player who grew up in that position as a teenager. Lewie Coyle, on a rare start at right-back, appeared in the right place at the right time to hustle Matej Vydra out of an excellent opportunity in the one moment when Derby looked like equalising in the second half. Around them, the usual suspects like Wood and Pablo Hernandez did their thing and forced the issue; Hernandez as untouchable as the big kid in the playground. It explained in one evening why Monk has no intention of changing this squad to any great extent. An influx of signings this month would do his players a big disservice.
Monk’s defence was the definition of makeshift, containing three right-backs across his line of four, but the players in the centre of it, Ayling and Kyle Bartley, were revisiting their younger years. The pair played there as trainees at Arsenal, part of the Under-18 side who hammered Liverpool in the final of the FA Youth Cup in 2009, and that allowed Monk to count on some level of understanding between them. Liam Cooper, who limped out of Cambridge on crutches on Monday, was unsurprisingly absent. Derby spent £2.5m on David Nugent this week and in the circumstances it would have been no more of a surprise to see Steve McClaren send him into bat from the start but McClaren was content to hold him in a strong pool of reserves. When Nugent finally appeared, he struggled to touch the ball. County’s manager used Abdoul Camara instead, starting the Guinea international for the first time in a league match. Blessed with pace but unable to use it, it was not a day for the 26-year-old’s scrapbook. He was substituted at the break.
Leeds were deprived of their own quick runner by an injury to Hadi Sacko but Monk’s side had no problem troubling Derby on his side of the pitch or in any other area. The tone was set by County wading through a flurry of five corners around the 10th minute, and Wood and Kemar Roofe saw tantilising crosses evade them with County goalkeeper Carson starved of a protection. The balance of play in that spell and throughout the first half saw to it that Monk’s defence was hardly questioned.
Not for the first time, the midfield in front of them dictated proceedings in a way that Derby could not counter. Leeds went religiously through Hernandez, newly signed to a permanent contract and full of his usual verve, and McClaren’s side took a battering for 45 minutes of normal time without conceding. Carson was equal to two headers from Bartley and a deflected shot which Liam Bridcutt smashed at him from 20 yards. Souleymane Doukara’s effort from the same range was powerful enough to beat him but aimed a fraction wide of his right-hand post.
On 24 minutes, from Leeds’ ninth corner of a remarkably one-sided start, Bartley missed the best chance of the lot. Derby went missing as Hernandez hooked another delivery in and though Wood swung and missed with an overhead kick, Bartley had the simple task of stabbing it in from a yard out. The ball bundled off his leg and against the advertising boards.
Rob Green’s first intervention, hacking the ball behind as Tom Ince toyed with Gaetano Berardi on the half-hour, was the only occasion until first-half injury-time when United’s keeper had scope to keep himself warm and McClaren, having taken in the early stages from Elland Road’s press box, but was down on the touchline by the 38th minute. As he arrived, Hernandez and Ronaldo Vieira showboated on the left wing, the former mugging two markers with a cheeky Cruyff turn. Derby’s battered players were pleased to see the last minute of 45 arrive.
But as injury-time came, Berardi took United’s corner count into Muller yogurt territory and a cross sent up by the reliable boot of Hernandez found the run of Wood who smashed a header past a helpless Carson. It had to come and the sight of Green palming a fierce strike from Ince over the bar within seconds of the restart did not alter the electricity in the ground. Elland Road loves a roasting. Derby looked cooked as they trudged from the field.
Changes were inevitable and McClaren added two seasoned campaigners to his team in Vydra and Will Hughes at the start of the second half. With hindsight he might have started both. Derby needed a break and it almost came from nothing in the 50th minute when Green smacked a clearance against Darren Bent and watched it rebound into his net. Bent ran to celebrate but 50 yards up the pitch, referee Scott Duncan blew for handball. Green had not claimed for it but took the decision gratefully. Only once after that was Elland Road asked to hold its breath, when Derby broke the length of the field on 64 minutes and sent Vydra one-on-one against Coyle. Coyle held his ground, kept his feet until the last moment and threw himself in front of the striker’s shot. That chance was outweighed by Berardi, Hernandez and Vieira all threatening a second goal at Carson’s end of the pitch and Leeds had the result in hand long before Bradley Johnson, their former midfielder, was sent off in the penultimate minute for a second booking and a second loose foul.
Leeds are not reliant on favours. It is clubs like Derby who need them now.