Fear and loathing at Leeds United but Whites fight on - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Brighton draw

The next week will either relegate Leeds United or hand them a reprieve but, either way, the torture will leave scars.

By Graham Smyth
Monday, 16th May 2022, 4:40 am
Updated Monday, 16th May 2022, 12:14 pm

Spurs doing their job against Burnley and Leeds’ stoppage-time equaliser against Brighton has taken the fight to the very last game of the season.

Even if the Clarets win their game in hand against Aston Villa on Tuesday night, Leeds will, at least, still stand a chance of survival on the final day and, by picking up a point to move out of the drop zone, they have put the onus squarely on Burnley, who now need at least one result from one of their remaining two fixtures.

If Sunday was anything to go by, the next seven days will be nothing but fear, loathing and agony and there will be pain even in celebration should things go the way of Leeds, because the post mortem of this season will not be pretty for anyone concerned.

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The tension that Leeds chief Angus Kinnear hoped would not burden Leeds in their final 180 minutes of football is clearly weighing ever-more heavily on those whose Premier League status is at stake and that could be lost in the blink of an eye.

An Ashley Barnes shot cannoned against the post in Burnley’s 1-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur, while Pascal Struijk’s header crept just inside the woodwork as the teams in 17th and 18th swapped positions. With margins this fine, hopes and dreams are teetering as singular incidents take on enormous significance.

After 45 minutes of a battle with Brighton, Leeds’ hopes looked all-but crushed. The side looked lost in the final moments of Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure but they disappeared entirely during large parts of the first half. Much was made of the calibre of the opposition in Leeds’ three straight losses going into the Brighton game yet this one was considered winnable, so took on even greater importance.

But, as it turns out, you can’t just ‘turn it on’. A team whose confidence was sapped completely by the manner of those defeats to Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, could not simply conjure from nothing the necessary spark. Momentum is hard to come by, from a standing start. Perhaps then it was no surprise that they found it so difficult to begin with at Elland Road.

FIGHTING ON - Pascal Struijk's header means Leeds United's relegation fight will go to the last game of the season next Sunday. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Luck is a commodity relegation-threatened teams cannot buy as the sight of Joe Gelhardt’s goal-bound effort being blocked on the line by Liam Cooper’s face illustrated perfectly.

Brighton, coming into the game with form and confidence, needed little luck because they were given space in which to operate.

A first chance came, unsurprisingly, from out wide, where so many of Leeds’ issues have cropped up during Marsch’s short time in charge. Marc Cucurella was found in ample space to cross on the left and, for a second or two, the hosts looked panic-stricken until Kalvin Phillips blocked Alexis MacAllister’s shot.

With Robin Koch off getting treatment for a facial wound, Brighton found even more room to manoeuvre and this time worked the ball to the right-back channel, creating another two shooting opportunities that Mateusz Klich and Illan Meslier foiled.

Again they came, MacAllister being afforded the freedom to pop up in pockets and link the play before Leandro Trossard scooped the ball over the Leeds back line and Solly March ran in on Meslier only to drill haplessly wide. It was a huge let-off and a warning not heeded, Brighton taking the lead shortly after.

Rodrigo had the ball in the final third, with Jack Harrison racing into space to his left and yet dallied so long that he was dispossessed, allowing the visitors to counter and Danny Welbeck to put enough pressure on Diego Llorente that he crumbled, leaving the striker to dink the ball over Meslier and into the net.

If ever a phase of play summed up the state of Leeds in recent weeks, that was it. Phillips hurled a water bottle into the turf in frustration and little changed to lighten his mood. The Whites toiled to create and failed to keep Brighton out. MacAllister flicked a header over the top and Meslier had to make a stop from Welbeck, before the offside flag went up When Pascal Groß ran in on goal, off the back of stand-in right-back Koch, a second looked imminent until the German’s brilliant recovery allowed him to make a last-ditch tackle. Had MacAllister forced the loose ball home that might have been that. He didn’t though and there was a glimmer of light when Klich brought a fine save from Robert Sanchez from 22 yards.

The second half began with a brighter moment too, suggesting that while Leeds weren’t turning it on, they were flickering. Rodrigo linked up with Gelhardt, he found Raphinha and the Brazilian’s effort cleared the bar.

Few elements of Marsch’s football have been quite so incongruous as Raphinha’s ‘long throw’ - an effort that barely registers on the Rory Delap scale, but it did at least earn a corner from which Firpo headed over.

A Rodrigo flick, from a Raphinha cross, necessitated a Lewis Dunk block as Leeds managed to take play into the opposition half with more cohesion and regularity than in their last three games. This wasn’t Leeds at their blinding best but it was better. Raphinha drew a remarkable stop from Sanchez with a 30-yard freekick and then slid in at the back post to meet Rodrigo’s through ball only to direct it wide. Harrison had a shot blocked, Klich was denied again by Sanchez and Gelhardt fizzed one just wide from distance as Brighton struggled to exert any control.

A spell of visitors' possession in the Leeds half threatened to snuff out the hosts’ light and it did turn the crowd, anti-board chants and Marcelo Bielsa’s name ringing out at Elland Road as fans lashed out in pain that not even the perfect set of results this week will fully soothe. This has been a hateful, spiteful season, one to endure rather than enjoy. There is genuine anger at the actions, or lack of action, that have led the club to the very brink of a Premier League departure. That feeling won't just subside and the reputations of individuals, be they expensive signings or the men signing off on recruitment, will not emerge from this campaign entirely unscathed - you cannot fly this close to the sun without being scorched.

Had the scoreline remained 1-0 to Brighton the directors box would have held the worst seats in the house.

But Gelhardt, a sunbeam in a dark season, produced a moment of exquisite magic, jinking, stopping, darting and flicking with both feet before lobbing the ball precisely to the back post where substitute Struijk lit the blue touch paper with a downward header. Relief exploded forth all around Elland Road and a club that is suffering division in the ranks was, once again, united. This season there have been too few moments as good as that one and recent games have lacked them completely. When they come they are to be cherished, because the fear and the worry will soon set in again ahead of the final football of 2021/22.

Credit where it’s due; Leeds did not give up and deserved the reward. The comeback showed the character needed in a dog fight and some of the second half football showed there's life left in the dog. That goal and the point are enough to keep Leeds alive, for now. They might be enough to keep them up, full stop. Nothing that happens in the next week, though, will be enough to wipe away the painful memories of this season of hurt.