Leeds United's Championship routine under Marcelo Bjelsa thrown off by Cardiff City fightback - Graham Smyth's verdict

Yorkshire Evening Post chief football writer Graham Smyth casts his verdict on Saturday's 3-3 draw with Cardiff City

Sunday, 15th December 2019, 6:00 am
Leeds United striker Eddie Nketiah reacts at Elland Road. (Getty)

At 8.30am on a Saturday morning Leeds United's players get up for breakfast at the Hilton Hotel.

They'll gather for two or three team meetings, the last of which will feature Marcelo Bielsa's final thoughts on how they should approach the game and a motivational message for his players.

At 1.30pm their coach pulls up at Elland Road, where scores of supporters congregate to welcome their idols to their place of worship.

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A smiling Bielsa hands out sweets to youngsters and Kalvin Phillips high fives all the outstretched hands.

A little after 2pm, when the team is announced, Gjanni Alioski will emerge from the dressing room and act up for the camera as the team runs out for their warm up.

At 2.55pm they leave the tunnel again, to the strains of Marching on Together and two hours later they walk back into it with three points in their back pocket.

Until Saturday, that had become the routine at Elland Road, it was what was expected to happen and until 4.15pm it looked for all the world that this would be another routine day at the office.

Leeds were 3-0 up, home and hosed, until they gave Cardiff City an inch and Neil Harris' men took a mile.

At 4.55pm Leeds walked off the pitch and down the tunnel with a point, after a 3-3 draw, against a side that equalised with 10 men.

Bielsa was at a loss to explain exactly how it happened, why it was allowed to happen and, refusing to blame his players, reverted to type by assuming the blame, decrying his own preparation and inability to stop Cardiff from profiting from set-pieces and crosses.

What made it even harder to put into words was the speed with which Leeds seemingly took the game away from the Welsh club.

United have had to be patient this season, grinding out results by out-running, out-working and out-lasting teams as much as out-playing them. Recently it has been in the second half of games that winners have arrived.

The clash with Cardiff looked done and dusted inside 10 minutes.

The speed and quality of Leeds' counter attack has come to the fore in their last few matches, but not until late on when opposition sides were heavy legged.

No more than six minutes had elapsed when, from a Cardiff corner, Leeds raced away, Jack Harrison sending the ball right to Pablo Hernandez who crafted a jaw-droppingly perfect first-time through ball, Helder Costa haring onto it and doing the rest.

Two minutes later Harrison fed Stuart Dallas, he curled the ball to the back post and Patrick Bamford had an unforgivable amount of time to chest the ball down and lash it into the net.

Leeds were rampant and Cardiff were floundering.

Attack after attack had the visitors on the back foot, the Whites playing what Bielsa described as some of the best football he's seen from his players.

Hernandez was in the mood, producing brilliance. But more than that, there was a bite and spite to his play.

He engaged in a war of words with Lee Tomlin that provoked the Bluebirds striker into a needless foul and a yellow card. Every pass was hit crisply and intended to hurt Cardiff.

He even won a header in the box, against one of the biggest defences you'll see at Elland Road this season.

Costa looked in ominous form too down the right and had a big shout for a first half penalty turned down.

It was breathless stuff from Leeds, creating danger, attacking wide open spaces but failing to add to their tally.

Cardiff did manage a spell of first half pressure, without ever testing Kiko Casilla.

But as the teams went off at the break there was no hint whatsoever of the horror that was to come.

It was even more unthinkable because the Whites flew out of the traps again in the second half, Luke Ayling blazing over a good chance within seconds of the restart.

When Patrick Bamford went down over the challenge of keeper Neil Etheridge it was a far less convincing appeal for a spot-kick, yet this one was actually awarded.

The frontman converted, Leeds were 3-0 up, went close to a fourth through Mateusz Klich's audacious deft chip and there was simply no way back for Cardiff City. Until they were given a helping hand.

Kiko Casilla, so reliable and impressive during Leeds' run of seven straight wins leading up to this game, came for a cross and didn't do nearly enough to alter its flight, Tomlin sidefoot volleying the ball over defenders and into the far corner of the net.

No matter, Leeds still had it all under control, Klich creating danger with a low cross that Etheridge palmed out of his goalmouth and then drilling an Ayling cut-back against a defender, with white shirts queuing up in the middle.

Hernandez got the bit between his teeth again, scurried past a couple of defenders and whacked one just wide, then Eddie Nketiah, on for Bamford, shot against Cardiff legs.

Eighty minutes gone, 3-1 up, still going to plan.

Eighty-two minutes gone, 3-2 up.

A free-kick was sent left, a big, deep cross was swung in and Sean Morrison was free to stoop and head in to turn a simmering worry into full-blown nerves.

Even a red card for Morrison, who lunged in late on Nketiah on 86 minutes, did little to bring calm to Elland Road.

And after Klich's low shot was saved, Cardiff boomed the ball up the middle, Tomlin backheeled it through the Leeds' defence and Robert Glatzel waltzed in to level.

Still Leeds could and should have won it, Nketiah trodding on the ball when it dropped to him in the six-yard box, before nodding down a Dallas cross that Etheridge beat out, White somehow failing to turn home the winner.

Full-time brought anger from bewildered home fans and pure joy for the visitors, the first side to celebrate any kind of positive result at Elland Road since Derby County in September.

That fact in itself should stop anyone from getting too carried away.

This was far from a routine occurrence for Bielsa's Leeds.