Birmingham City 1 Leeds United 0 - Phil Hay's verdict: Promotion race takes another twist as Marcelo Bielsa suffers the Blues
At full-time it could have been mistaken for the final day of the season: players on the turf, some staring into space and some with their faces in their shirts.
Leeds United are feeling every result as if it was their last, too invested in automatic promotion to be philosophical about what third place in the Championship would mean.
The brief given to Marcelo Bielsa last summer asked only for that - the play-offs and at least a chance of the jackpot - but many months of setting the pace in the division have given his squad the mindset of top two or bust.
It was there in the body language at the end of a loss to Birmingham City, a vivid admission that anything less than an automatic escape from the Championship will hit them hard.
“They’ve got every chance to do it,” said Birmingham manager Garry Monk, careful not to remind anyone of how few games it takes to throw a big chance away.
Leeds suffered at St Andrew's as Sheffield United suffered at home to Bristol City a week earlier, bumped into third as the other club were scraping through elsewhere, and the only conclusion anyone can draw is that a league which has seen second position change three times in three weeks is liable to shift again.
“The performance of the team was not very positive,” Bielsa said, fairly sharp criticism by the gentle standards he maintains in public, but Preston away looms on Tuesday night and he held the middle ground between grandstanding and the abject deflation the world saw in him at Queens Park Rangers in February.
There is a moral victory of sorts in the fact that it took until the first weekend of April for a club in the Championship to beat Bielsa’s team home and away but like QPR’s inability to put away anyone other than Leeds this side of Christmas is not unlike the way in which Birmingham woke up against Monk’s former side.
They were without a win and carrying an out-of-form striker in Che Adams when they inflicted Leeds’ first league defeat with two finishes from Adams in September. They were on a run of five losses and trying to tease Adams back into the goals when his 29th-minute shot banked a 1-0 win on Saturday.
"They’re a quality side but we warrant the six points against them,” Monk insisted. “Today we thoroughly deserved it and got it tactically spot on.”
Tactically Bielsa was in more of a muddle. He chided himself in September for playing a four-man defence against Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz, convinced by his principle that two up front should be met by three centre-backs, and was not prepared to be caught out in the same way for a second time.
Leeds slipped into a 3-3-1-3 formation, a system which never seems to fit Bielsa’s players like a glove in the way that 4-1-4-1 does.
After half-an-hour, and behind to Adams’ finish from inside the box, he signalled Mateusz Klich - forever circled by four or five Birmingham players - forward from a deep role in midfield and by the second half the weight of pressure on Birmingham left a high, two-man defence of Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper.
Very little was needed in behind.
“The position of Klich didn’t help the team to create chances in attack,” Bielsa said, though he did not accept that Leeds had more uncertainty about them when they switched to a formation they have used less frequently this season.
“I don’t think this was the key,” Bielsa said. “With the amount that we had the ball, we should have created double the chances.”
Possession ran to 73 per cent, the level where Bielsa likes to operate, but the onslaught which broke Millwall at Elland Road did not have the same effect on a Birmingham team who defend better and are better than Millwall.
Pablo Hernandez dropped from the stratosphere and found his touch and precision on a level with mere mortals, and occasionally below.
In the last 20 minutes, Monk’s defence read everything and dealt with everything, leaving goalkeeper Lee Camp with a meagre workload.
It would have been wholly different, and most likely a different post-match debate, had Patrick Bamford not had another of those days which makes a £7m price tag tug heavily on his neck.
Sixty seconds before Adams scored, Luke Ayling served up a cross from the right which was begging an unmarked Bamford to head it into the net. Bamford reached up with a foot instead, knocking the ball against a post and back into Camp’s hands.
Birmingham swept upfield immediately and Jutkiewicz stepped over Jacques Maghoma’s cross, leaving Adams to steady himself and rifle his 22nd goal of the season into Kiko Casilla’s bottom corner.
The ball was on a plate for Bamford again after half-time when Klich and Dallas worked the left side of Monk’s defence and Dallas drilled a pass into the six-yard box. Bamford timed his run but met the ball with the touch of a player wearing wellies, driving it up over the crossbar at an angle which looked almost impossible from close-range.
“He was better today than in his previous game,” Bielsa said but the difference was marginal and there is something about Kemar Roofe’s strength and movement which suits Bielsa’s football better.
Dallas was a half-time substitute for Jack Harrison, who failed to leave a scratch on Birmingham, but Bielsa held off from making any others until the 70th minute when Roofe and Jack Clarke got the nod.
City were penned in and relied on a good save from Camp to keep out a glancing header from Bamford but they found intermittent ways of breaking out and threatening a second goal.
Casilla proved adept at cutting gaps and angles, repelling shots from Jutkiewicz and Adams which would have killed the game dead. It was live until the end but with no promise of an equaliser and no sign of even Hernandez rising above the fog.
“Pablo can unlock defences,” said Monk, who had tempted the Spaniard back to Leeds and England in 2016.
“We managed to squeeze him out of his normal positions and make him go deeper. He can still hurt you there but he’s more manageable. You'd much rather he's there than in between the lines, picking passes.”
Leeds are at the stage where the only place they want to be is over the line, home and hosed and in the glow of a promotion which has been teasing them for so long. Hernandez walked out of St Andrew's with a protective boot on one foot and all in all it had not been Bielsa’s day.
It is typical of football that Leeds are left looking for Monk to do them a favour when Sheffield United head for Birmingham on Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of football left to be played,” Monk warned. Not half.