Championship predictions impossible as Leeds United and Luton Town proved - Graham Smyth's Verdict

The Championship, like Leeds United, just cannot be predicted.

Wednesday, 1st July 2020, 5:45 am
LEVELLER - Leeds United celebrate their equaliser at home to Luton Town in a frustrating 1-1 draw. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Days after putting promotion hopefuls Fulham to the sword with lightning-quick counter attacks in a 3-0 win, Leeds were held to a 1-1 draw by bottom side Luton Town at Elland Road.

The mood at Elland Road has swung like a pendulum since the resumption, following the most disappointing of restarts and that defeat at Cardiff City, before the soaring high of that win over the Cottagers.

And Tuesday night’s visit of Nathan Jones and the Hatters brought every emotion to an empty stadium.

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Going a goal behind wasn’t in the script, unless you had read some of the Whites’ horror collection, but Leeds fought back to equalise and could easily have won the game in the end.

A draw wasn’t a disaster, but with Brentford haring out of the traps with three wins on the spin since the break, the nerves will continue to jangle.

The sight of generals Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas limping off, the latter in a less pained looking fashion than the former, will do little to help calm the collective psyche.

Yet Pablo Hernandez’ second-half introduction and his influence on the game, along with a six-point gap to third place, are significant factors upon which hope can be pinned.

FINISH - Stuart Dallas slots home to make it 1-1 for Leeds United against Luton Town. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

And the form of Jack Harrison and Gjanni Alioski are definite positives, giving Leeds a menacing look down the left flank for two games running.

Others are yet to hit the heights of their pre-break form however and the talk of starting the mini-season like a house on fire has yet to ring entirely true.

Leeds, expected to beat a much-changed Luton side, were on the front foot quickly in this one though, Jack Harrison baiting Callum McManaman into a second minute challenge that brought an early yellow card, before Tyler Roberts’ through ball presented Patrick Bamford with a chance, his effort from an acute angle kept out by Simon Sluga.

But if anyone was expecting an early procession, they were to be sorely disappointed as Luton themselves made a decent start.

A free-kick level with the penalty area on the right, conceded by Dallas, evaded the gloves of Illan Meslier and while Leeds avoided any damage to the scoreline, Cooper was left in agony on the turf. What looked like a knee in the back took the Whites captain out of the game.

Gaetano Berardi came on after an uncomfortable period in which Leeds inexplicably eschewed opportunities to halt the game and get the replacement on, as Luton attempted to take advantage.

The Swiss defender almost made an immediate impact, for the wrong reasons, a poor touch giving McManaman a sniff of a run in on Meslier, before Berardi recovered to put the Luton man off his stride.

There was a brief period of promise from Leeds, Roberts and Helder Costa both finding room in the area for shots, but both were from difficult angles and both cleared the bar.

The first half settled into a frustrating pattern for the hosts, but not in the same way that the Fulham game began.

This time they had plenty of possession – 72 per cent before the interval – but couldn’t do much with it. The defence would carry the ball to halfway, look for options and, with Luton remaining compact, hopeful channel balls were about the height of it.

Leeds did win several corners but posed little or no threat from set-pieces, deliveries hitting the first man or finding a spare attacker too far from goal to worry the Hatters, who created little themselves after Sonny Bradley’s 19th-minute header was well saved by Meslier.

Half-time brought a change for the Whites, Alioski taking the place of first-half substitute Berardi.

But with Leeds pressing even higher up the pitch than before, Luton’s half-time replacement Harry Cornick raced away on their first real counter-attack and despite being tracked and forced wide by Ben White, blasted a shot back across goal and into Meslier’s far top corner. Luton, with something to hold onto, were given even more reason to defend for their lives, amid increasing Leeds pressure.

Sluga became the game’s busiest man, saving first from Roberts, who dug out a shot in a crowded box, then from Harrison.

And when Bradley tripped Patrick Bamford just outside the area, Sluga got down well to Kalvin Phillips’ free-kick and Helder Costa’s follow up, the Portuguese putting the second rebound into the side netting.

Marcelo Bielsa finally introduced Hernandez on the hour mark and three minutes later Leeds were level.

The little Spaniard helped progress the move that brought the all-important goal with a pass out of a gaggle of players, before Alioski threaded a ball to Dallas in the box and the full-back slotted home. The Dallas-Alioski combination should have brought a second just four minutes later, yet when the Northern Irishman crossed, the North Macedonian arrived alone at the back post and headed into the side netting.

With Hernandez dropping deep and finding men going forward, Leeds were able to progress the play far more smoothly and quickly than in the first half.

And when the playmaker popped up further forward, the hosts looked dangerous.

He swung the ball left to Alioski who clipped in a nice cross, Bamford turning it just past the post. Luton tried to repeat their earlier trick with an out ball for Cornick, but Meslier was wise to it and raced from his goal to head clear, taking a whack in the midriff that earned the visiting goalscorer a yellow.

That half-chance aside, it was all Leeds.

They played with pace and width, world-class wing play from Harrison taking him away from two men before his beautiful drifting cross was misjudged by Bamford.

Chances were coming and going with frequency, Alioski’s shot deflected up and over the bar then the full-back scampered onto another sliderule Hernandez pass to put a dangerous low cross into the box, Dallas sidefooting wide.

Still Leeds came, in time added on, Alioski curling in what looked like a perfect cross for Costa, who couldn’t steer his header on target in what was the last real chance of the game.

Only six games remain. Only a brave soul would make any predictions just yet.