Leeds United 3 Millwall 2 - Phil Hay's verdict: Pablo Hernandez makes Whites believe again in Elland Road epic

No room for Pablo Hernandez in the EFL’s team of the year, proving that one is born every minute, but Leeds United would find space for a statue of him on days like Saturday.

Sunday, 31st March 2019, 10:33 am
Updated Sunday, 31st March 2019, 10:38 am
Leeds United's Pablo Hernandez celebrates winner against Millwall at Elland Road.

This is Marcelo Bielsa’s year, his vision and his story, but the Spaniard in his dressing room keeps reviving a comment Bielsa made in the first month of the season. “Hernandez can make me a better coach.”

It sounded like undue humility then but it feels wholly believable now and Hernandez’s icy genius in circumstances where even Bielsa’s pulse-rate rose was career-defining, at least in terms of the three years he has given Leeds. If Hernandez plays like this in the last seven games of the season then the club are up.

There is no explaining how managers across the EFL decided collectively that the Championship has 11 better players than him.

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Leeds United's Pablo Hernandez celebrates winner against Millwall at Elland Road.

“I can feel my heart,” Bielsa joked, in a rare admission that football tangled with his emotions like it did with the thousands who put themselves through a 3-2 win over Millwall.

Leeds covered the seats in Elland Road’s East Stand with cards before kick-off, spelling out the word ‘Believe’, and the game made sure the display was no gimmick: Leeds falling behind twice, Patrick Bamford smashing a first-half penalty against the legs of Millwall goalkeeper David Martin and the only result which mattered elsewhere threatening to go against them.

Everything was staked on the last 20 minutes and those 20 minutes belonged to Hernandez, made front and centre by a substitution which let him kill Millwall with a thousand cuts.

Leeds were 2-1 down and Bielsa resolved to play with one centre-back, removing Pontus Jansson before Jansson got himself sent off and giving Hernandez the middle of the pitch to direct play from.

The midfielder’s numbers said it all: two goals, seven shots, 66 passes and 98 touches; a masterclass which those who saw it will remember after the Spaniard has packed up and gone.

“He’s a massive player,” said Tyler Roberts, at the end of a massive day.

What went on at Elland Road was going on 30 miles south at Bramall Lane, where Sheffield United felt the strain of a promotion which neither they nor Leeds can quite touch yet.

Their win in Leeds before the international break felt priceless but having tipped up at Elland Road and won a high-stakes Yorkshire derby, their initiative in the Championship and their hold on second place was gone within 90 minutes. Beaten 3-2 by Bristol City on Saturday, the Blades are out of the automatic promotion positions again.

“We’ve always responded strongly,” said Chris Wilder, “and we’ll have to do that again next week.”

The two matches in Yorkshire moved in tandem: Sheffield United taking a 2-1 lead just as Leeds fell 2-1 behind and Bristol City’s Andreas Weimann completing a hat-trick at the precise moment when Hernandez buried the winner at Elland Road. Bielsa urged his players to disregard other results but he is clutching at straws expecting anyone else to do the same.

The biggest cheer went up when news of the result in Sheffield filtered through, even though Saturday suggested that the skirmish for second place will ebb and flow several more times.

“Every game we play, we just have to play the game,” Bielsa said, “not the results of other teams.”

In the midst of it all, United’s head coach has the poise of Hernandez, a name omitted from the EFL’s team of the year earlier in the week and absent too from the shortlist for the Championship’s player-of-the-year award.

There are, it should be said, a plethora of standout performances in the division but Leeds know and Hernandez knows. He has been worth 23 goals this season, through finishes and assists, and worth even more with his rhythmical, surgical passing.

Every time Millwall looked up in the closing stages, Hernandez had the ball and the nerve to use it, while so many others were losing their heads.

“Take nothing away from Leeds,” said Neil Harris, a manager who does not send praise this way cheaply. “They’re a top team. But we ran them very close.”

Millwall have the fire at their feet and relegation to worry about but possessed a degree of craft which caught Leeds by surprise. Ben Thompson and Jed Wallace reacted to early mistakes and space in front of Bielsa’s defence with dynamism and invention, and Thompson opened the scoring with a free header in the 10th minute after Mahlon Romeo hooked a cross in from the right wing.

Leeds, inevitably, had chances which went begging, the best of them a penalty from Patrick Bamford after Wallace tripped Gjanni Alioski. Bamford went down the middle, failed to get his foot under the ball properly and drove it against Martin’s legs. The miss stalked Bamford from then on, killing his touch and his confidence.

Hernandez had both and equalised in the 34th minute, stroking the ball into Martin’s far corner after Luke Ayling picked him out from the right wing.

“Pablo always keep the feeling that we can hurt the opponent every time,” Bielsa said and Millwall felt the same by the end.

There was, still, a fragility about Leeds which kept Millwall coming.

Alioski made way from Barry Douglas at half-time but Douglas caused panic in the 55th minute by losing the ball deep in Millwall’s half, inviting Wallace to steam over the halfway line and forcing Liam Cooper into a challenge which felled Ben Marshall inside the box.

Marshall took the same approach as Bamford from the penalty spot but put his foot through the ball, battering it past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Harris felt comfortable and his players, for a while, looked comfortable.

“Their second goal came at a time when we were managing the game well,” he said but when a foul by Jansson on Wallace drew Jansson perilously close to talking himself into a second booking, Bielsa withdrew him, threw Jack Clarke onto the right wing and asked Hernandez to direct the onslaught.

“The idea was to play with only one centre-back,” Bielsa said, compelled at that stage to take big risks.

They paid off quickly. Millwall made a mess of a clearance in the 71st minute and Douglas’ deft cross was nodded under the crossbar by a bullet of a header from Luke Ayling.

Twelve minutes later, with Millwall treading water, Roberts hit the byline and drove the ball into the six-yard box where Hernandez, like clockwork, ran into score and make an afternoon of palpitations worth it.

Always him, when the heat is on.