Bristol City 0 Leeds United 1 - Phil Hay's verdict: Lee Johnson wants Marcelo Bielsa in the play-offs but the Whites have no intention of dying on that hill
Lee Johnson’s final comment on Saturday evening was a parting shot and a half. “I’d love to play Leeds in the play-offs,” he said as he wrapped up his press conference and left the room, and Marcelo Bielsa would not tempt fate by telling Johnson that Leeds United have no intention of meeting him there.
“It’s very risky to talk about safe positions,” Bielsa said, replying to a question about whether Leeds were already locked into the Championship’s top three and Johnson’s thoughts of play-off permutations were hasty for a coach with no promise of qualifying.
Ipswich Town are sunk at the bottom of the league but everything else is up for grabs, a division in the grip of unpredictability.
Bielsa felt the tension at Ashton Gate on Saturday and was unable to go so far as saying a 1-0 win over Bristol City had given him enjoyment.
There was plenty for him to like about it - the scoreline, its impact on the table, the way Leeds reached the final whistle with clear heads and walking wounded - but nerves are rattling across the Championship and Leeds know which hill they intend to die on.
Ten games to go and automatic promotion in front of them; where else would the club rather be?
The fixation on promotion is so consuming that the weekend went by without any recriminations over Bristol City’s meddling in the ‘Spygate’ dispute or the attempt by their hierarchy to influence the outcome of that acrid controversy.
Leeds paid the EFL a £200,000 fine to put it to bed but Steve Lansdown, Bristol City’s owner, was the man banging the drum for a points deduction; banging it so loudly that at the end of its investigation, the EFL asked Leeds if they club wanted to make a formal complaint.
Paul Scally, the Gillingham chairman, found out how United’s support tend to deal with perceived slights when he defended to the hilt a 15-point deduction imposed on Leeds for very different reasons in 2007 but Lansdown was less than an afterthought on Saturday and Bielsa’s concentration is proving infectious.
Settling scores was good sport while season after season was wasting away. It is barely relevant when a top-two finish is in their hands.
Your players looked focused, Bielsa was told. “I think this aspect will have a lot of importance in the games that are left,” he admitted.
Bristol City were beaten by a ninth-minute tap-in from Patrick Bamford, who hit a streak of goals with Middlesbrough this time last year and finding the same regularity with Leeds.
Bamford has languished in the treatment room for too much of the season and was back there on Saturday evening but his strikerate is defying his fitness: 14 appearances, eight starts and seven goals.
To Bielsa’s relief he has gained some rhythm in a side who rarely win at a canter. “It’s an obligation for him to score when a team lacks efficiency,” Bielsa said, “but he also has a collective role.”
It is, as Bielsa knows by now, never quite that simple. Bamford was on hand to bundle in Luke Ayling’s header after Gjanni Alioski swept a crossfield pass from left to right but the striker slid forward and collided heavily with a post.
His movement was constrained from then on and his body language - running gingerly with regular glances towards the bench - said he was done long before Bielsa substituted him in the 57th minute.
“Because he’s important, I didn’t want to take him out of the game,” Bielsa said. “But I saw that his performance weakened us a little after the goal.”
Bielsa needs Bamford away at Reading on Tuesday night as an injured Kemar Roofe ploughs on through his own rehabilitation, though few of the obstacles put in front of United’s head coach have been impossible for him to jump.
There were anxious assessments of Kalvin Phillips too after the midfielder twisted an ankle in a challenge on Antoine Semenyo but Phillips made it to the final whistle and looked like he would have made through anyless less than amputation.
For most of the game he strangled Bristol City by killing the flow of possession between Johnson’s midfield and his forward line.
City are a useful team, prone to extended streaks of good and bad form under their feisty manager, but without any room to move the ball around, they were reduced to driving long balls down the throat of Pontus Jansson.
The defender stuck tightly to Famara Diedhiou from the start and bullied the Senegalese forward. Semenyo, an 18-year-old making his debut, was so badly out of his depth that Johnson replaced him before the hour.
“It'll expand his mind to what the Championship's like and how bright you've got to be to cope with it,” Johnson said. It was as much of a bone as Johnson could pick out.
Leeds pulled the strings before half-time and had most of the chances, the best of which Jack Harrison failed to put away. Bristol City did nothing until Leeds split like the Red Sea in the final minutes of the half and found Marlon Pack running unchallenged to the edge of the box.
Kiko Casilla came out to meet him and Pack’s short pass to Diedhiou, presenting an open goal, was thwarted when Jansson stuck a boot in before Diedhiou could stab the ball into the net.
Casilla, Leeds’ January signing from Real Madrid, has provided some tranquility at the back; not perfect and at his weakest under searching crosses but a goalkeeper who Bielsa’s defence are never seen ranting at.
In the second half he denied Pack with a foot and, having committed himself too far from his goalline, was able to stop a lob from Semenyo’s replacement, Matty Taylor, clearing his head.
“He gives serenity to the team,” Bielsa said. “He doesn’t make any mistakes.”
Leeds made none after Bristol City got a belated grip and began playing in United’s half for the final 15 minutes, and Bamford’s goal was enough. There are bigger fixtures than this in Bielsa’s diary - next Saturday’s meeting with Sheffield United a reincarnation, in its own way, of their pivotal derby in 1990 - but the Blades’ win over Rotherham United in a lunchtime kick-off had thrown a gauntlet his way and his players were able to grasp it.
It is blow for blow and tit for tat in the Championship; football at its finest as a long season comes down to the odd result.
Bielsa was trying his best to love it.
“It’s very difficult to use the word ‘enjoy’ after a game, even if we’ve won,” he said. “But afterwards, when we watch and do analysis of our games, I do enjoy living this.”