Leeds United 1 Aston Villa 1 - Phil Hay's verdict: Controversial Elland Road clash adds fuel to the fire for Whites play-off bid
Wembley could be the backdrop when these clubs next meet and even the play-off final will be hard-pressed to write headlines like the one written in Leeds yesterday.
A crowd who turned up expecting a dead rubber were treated to the mother of all shambles, like nothing Elland Road can remember.
It was, on paper, a 1-1 draw between Leeds United and Aston Villa which barely changed the Championship but only after the chaos of the 72nd minute lit the fuse of a contest which might be repeated when everything is on the line in four weeks’ time, in football’s richest game.
Should Leeds and Villa make it to Wembley, they will carry bad blood with them and scores to settle.
Their contest yesterday was trickling towards a goalless finish when Mateusz Klich ignored an injured Jonathan Kodjia halfway up the pitch, advanced on a defence who thought the game was about to stop and drilled a shot into the bottom corner of Villa’s net.
The goal caused fighting on the pitch, vitriol between the dug-outs, a red card for Villa’s Anwar El Ghazi and fortunate escapes for some of the other protagonists.
To cap it all, Bielsa bowed to the seething anger in Villa’s camp by allowing Albert Adomah to walk in an equaliser unopposed.
It was lucky in the circumstances that the result didn’t matter, though it is inconceivable that the Football Association will refrain from following the mayhem up, or that Leeds or Villa will have forgotten about it if the play-offs throw them together again.
Bielsa is already off the Christmas card list of one Chelsea old boy, Frank Lampard. He and Villa assistant John Terry got up close and personal by going nose-to-nose as the carnage spread to the technical areas.
A complete loss of control was not a surprise given the earlier mishaps of referee Stuart Attwell, who pushed Bielsa in the first half to the point where the Argentinian was wagging his finger at the official constantly and shown a yellow card.
Leeds needed to find some fire inside them after the misery of defeats to Wigan Athletic and Brentford and Attwell served that purpose in a roundabout way.
“We’re all driven and motivated,” Bielsa said in his programme notes; more than ever if his animated demeanour was anything to go by.
Both Leeds and Villa are confirmed participants in the play-offs - Leeds with reluctance, Villa with a spring in their step - and a 1-1 draw between them in an inconsequential fixture left many questions unanswered.
The final table is likely to keep them apart in the semi-finals and their respective eyes are on London now, and the chance to claim promotion the difficult way.
Villa’s path into the top six was cleared by 10 straight wins before yesterday and they had little more to lose in Leeds than a run which broke a club record set in 109 years ago.
Leeds came to the play-offs in the opposite direction, forced into them by their own nerves over Easter and Sheffield United’s success in holding it together at home to Ipswich Town on Saturday afternoon.
The visit of Villa sold out in a flash in anticipation of deliverance to the Premier League automatically. As it was, the crowd prepared to go through the motions until Klich’s goal lit a fire.
It will be Derby County for Leeds in the play-offs as it stands: Bielsa versus Lampard yet again.
Leeds wiped the floor with Derby home and away this season and Spygate was not the fatal distraction it could have been at Elland Road but Derby are in ruder health this side of Easter.
At the end of a long, sapping year, Bielsa will find that the final mile in the Championship is the hardest to cover.
All that Leeds can change at this juncture is their mental state and confidence, neither of which will have been harmed by them hosing down a red-hot Villa team.
Bielsa is not for turning on his ideas or his selection policy and there was no pretence of any serious experimentation in a dead rubber; much the same players in much the same system, drawing water from the same well.
It ran dry last weekend but offered more vigour and direction yesterday.
The one tweak Bielsa made, moving Adam Forshaw into an advanced midfield role, took the Argentinian back to the plan as it was before a ball was kicked and before injuries began interfering. Forshaw’s form in pre-season exceeded that of everyone else, in Bielsa’s eyes at least, but a broken foot suffered in July took the position away from him.
He, Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich gave a firm look to the centre of Bielsa’s line-up but the warning signs from Villa came quickly, via close-range headers in the first three minutes from Andre Green and Jonathan Kodjia.
Neither drew a save from Kiko Casilla but the chances quashed any thought that Villa might ease off with their play-off place already banked. So used to controlling possession, Leeds took their time to lay a foot on the ball.
Gradually, some fluency started to come.
Jack Harrison failed to connect cleanly with a shot at the far post after Luke Ayling found space to cross from the right and Ahmed Elmohamady recovered in time to stop Harrison finishing off a one-two with Patrick Bamford from an angle.
A Klich effort from 20 yards was worth a go and just over Villa’s crossbar. All the while, Kalvin Phillips kept Jack Grealish close.
For most of the first half, United gave as good as they got. McGinn’s glancing header forced a sprawling parry from Casilla, stopping it creeping into the corner, but Forshaw smacked a shot over from a good position 20 yards out and Hernandez wasted a decent opening with a scuffed finish.
By half-time, however, it had become the Attwell show as the official’s decision-making incited all and sundry. Bielsa was caught venting at the fourth official after Tyrone Mings was given the benefit of advantage but then awarded a free-kick after losing the ball.
In the final minute of the half Attwell yellow-carded United’s head coach for one comment too many in his dug-out.
Bielsa, so often a match official’s best friend, took a telling and crouched back down, shaking his head quietly. He was ranting again when Attwell blew for half-time just as Luke Ayling surged into Villa’s box.
Bielsa looked closer to home at the interval by sending on Gaetano Berardi and Tyler Roberts, the early substitutions which the 63-year-old has made his trademark in England.
Leeds’ dominance increased and Forshaw was a fraction from finding the net in the 50th minute. When Villa came up for air four minutes later, Kodjia wasted their best opportunity by driving Elmohamady’s cross over from 12 yards out and holding his head in his hands.
It was competitive to the end with the lingering possibility of one side landing a psychological blow on the other but no-one foresaw the events of the 72nd minute.
Kodjia went down injured but Leeds played on and Klich carried the ball off the right wing before driving it into Jed Steer’s far corner.
Players waded into each other, Bielsa went head-to-head with John Terry and El Ghazi was shown a straight red card for attempting to hit Patrick Bamford in the face.
When, after several minutes, the mood calmed slightly, Bielsa told Leeds to stand back and allow Adomah to carry the ball up field and slide it into the net.
Even then, Pontus Jansson broke ranks and tried to see Adomah off, a small act of defiance from the Swede.
To be continued, and then some.