Ipswich Town 3 Leeds United 2 - Phil Hay's verdict: Whites have more questions than answers from Portman Road as play-offs loom large
There was something to be said for a low-stakes game in Suffolk, a little calm in the wilderness before the play-offs inject adrenaline into everyone’s veins, but Leeds could not even make the most of that.
It was the club’s intention to avoid the play-offs completely by sealing or basking in a top-two finish at Portman Road and the chance was so real three weeks ago that Ipswich Town were persuaded to hike up their allocation of away tickets, doubling it to 4,000.
The tickets sold as they always do but results forced Leeds to mark time in Ipswich yesterday, killing a weekend which stood between them and the real business of May.
Brittle at the back and prone to mistakes, they became the fifth notch on Ipswich’s belt.
A 3-2 defeat might not matter when the final reckoning comes but it was hard to think of a worse way for Bielsa to arrive at the threshold of the play-offs. Articulating Ipswich’s ineptitude takes some doing. Previously they had won four league fixtures and bought themselves a ticket to League One before Easter.
Their concession rate is not far off two a game and teams have been cashing in at their expense during the run-in. Leeds drove to Ipswich wishing automatic promotion was up for grabs. In the circumstances, it was as well that it wasn’t.
They took third place in the table regardless, helped by Derby County’s win at home to West Bromwich Albion, to set Marcelo Bielsa and Frank Lampard up for another fascinating dance.
It is Leeds versus Derby in the semi-finals, Argentinian innovation against English sensibilities in a two-legged tie with various subplots.
Derby’s chances depend on them playing better than they did in either of their two meetings with Leeds.
Leeds’ chances depend on them playing far better than they did at Ipswich yesterday.
No-one at Portman Road expected fireworks as one club faced up to the hinterland of League One and another prepared to stake a campaign under Bielsa on a three-match shoot-out but a big push in the second half failed to spare Leeds from the embarrassment of losing to a side who, generally speaking, have been losing to everyone.
Flynn Downes and Andre Dozzell scored either side of a Mateusz Klich effort on the stroke of half-time but Stuart Dallas bundled in an equaliser for Leeds 14 minutes from time, reeling in an Ipswich squad who have scored three times in the same match only once this term.
Leeds should have won it after Luke Chambers was sent off for conceding an 80th-minute penalty but Kemar Roofe lost his balance and sent it over the crossbar and a horrible error from Kiko Casilla let Collin Quaner roll an apologetic winner into an empty net.
The pronunciation of Ipswich might perplex Bielsa but the town’s club have been nowhere near as challenging, down and out some time ago and stuck on 28 points before yesterday. Leeds went past that mark in the first week of November and Portman Road on the concluding weekend would have been a plum fixture had Leeds been competing for anything.
As it was, they were merely tying up loose ends and managed to make impossibly hard work of that.
There were, despite the dead nature of the contest, some things for Bielsa to wish for: the development of a fairly new midfield network of Kalvin Phillips, Adam Forshaw and Klich, and Roofe back in the goals.
Injuries have kept Roofe down in the second half of the season but 13 finishes before New Year have been followed by just one since then and the suspension earned by Patrick Bamford last week passed the goalscoring baton to him. Even the gift of a late penalty at Ipswich failed to do the trick.
In relatively few moments did anyone look like getting amongst the goals in the first half.
Downes sent a deflected shot wide at Kiko Casilla’s end after Stuart Dallas gave a crossfield pass away and Bartosz Bialkowski stood up to beat away a rising effort from Forshaw in the 22nd minute but Leeds’ attempts to pass Ipswich to death were constrained by the absence of the pace needed to properly kill them.
Then, on the half-hour, Leeds conspired to blow up in a way which Bielsa knows they cannot afford in the play-offs.
Casilla - sent off in March for a professional foul on Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp - caused trouble by sprinting 10 yards out of his box to challenge Collin Quaner and brought the forward down.
Quaner was running wide and referee Gavin Ward let Casilla off with a booking but from the resulting free-kick, Alan Judge’s delivery sprung out to Downes who prodded the ball into the net.
Bielsa’s defence were once immune to soft touches like that but amid all the talk of Leeds’ inability to turn possession into goals has been a creep of cheap, avoidable concessions, a factor as prevalent in the ten defeats the club have suffered this side of Christmas.
But in the 45th minute, Leeds found a way to land a blow.
Luke Ayling chased an apparent lost cause after Forshaw sent a pass over the top and his cut-back as Ipswich’s defence dithered reached the feet of Klich.
A clean hit drove the ball past Bialkowski before the goalkeeper could move. There was no scuffling this time and no arguments about a slick finish. The half-time whistle blew seconds later.
Two minutes after the interval, Ipswich were back in front with a passage of passing which even Bielsa might have appreciated.
Trevor Chalobah and Quanner combined through a huge hole in the centre of midfield to play in Dozzell, unmarked on the right after Dallas’ burst forward and free to drive a low shot into Casilla’s far corner.
The Spaniard could do nothing about it.
Leeds tried to salvage something but without great conviction. Bialkowski gloved a header from Roofe onto the roof of his net, rectifying his own mistake, and a corner from Phillips flew narrowly wide off the back of Liam Cooper.
When Ipswich were cut open in the 70th minute, Bialkowski dived to keep out a shot from Jack Clarke and then reacted quickly to stop Hernandez sliding in the rebound.
Ipswich were unlikely to survive too many scares like that and Leeds broke through six minutes later when Roofe turned Ayling’s cross against the crossbar and Dallas arrived to bundle in the rebound. Ipswich screamed for handball but referee Gavin Ward saw nothing wrong.
The concession shook Paul Lambert’s side and Chambers was dismissed for felling Roofe inside the box after letting the striker wriggle away from him. Roofe put the ball down but lost his footing as he went to strike it, spooning it over the bar.
Then, as the 90th minute came, Casilla ran out to take a high ball but dithered for fear of handling outside his box, leaving it to the waiting Quaner.
The play-offs loom and Bielsa can only hope that what Leeds flushed from their system yesterday will not be seen again.