Last night’s meeting between Leeds United and Middlesbrough was in the eye of a storm for many weeks and yet, when matchday arrived, attention turned elsewhere. Never has so much fuss been made about a game which drew less attention than the south face of Elland Road’s East Stand.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, wanted the match to focus the mind on his skirmish with Sky Sports and the Football League – infuriated as he was by the decision to move Boro’s visit to a Monday evening, clearing the way for television coverage – but it put the spotlight instead on his running of the club as supporters opposed to him paid £2,600 to light up the East Stand pre-match with graphics calling for him to depart.
The images will not find a place in history like Gail Porter’s posterior on the side of the Houses of Parliament – the company responsible for that stunt were behind yesterday’s projections at Elland Road – but the message was there in black, white and colour. Abroad in Italy, news of it will have reached Cellino before long.
The fact that only one team had something to play for yesterday explained some of the discord and the attention on him. Boro came to Leeds with the intention of regaining first place in the Championship. United, in Cellino’s second season as owner, are freewheeling in the direction of a quiet finish. A goalless draw ensued in which Leeds gave as good as they got against a side who, regardless of league position, did not look superior to them.
United had the better of the first half and struck Boro’s crossbar, albeit after Giuseppe Bellusci had cleared a goalbound effort from Gaston Ramirez off United’s goalline. Those moments in isolation suggested a gripping, end-to-end contest but in front of a crowd of 20,000 – the reduced turnout Cellino predicted with Sky in the building – the game was as low on chances as many of United’s recent outings until the contest burst into life late on.
Not even the presence of Jordan Rhodes, Boro’s £9million striker, could force the issue and the ever-improving Bellusci earned more brownie points with some comprehensive handling of the Scotland international. In the end it took two brilliant saves from goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos to deny Souleymane Doukara a winner. As the final whistle approached, Leeds’ energy made Boro look pedestrian.
Evans’ team picked itself and Aitor Karanka’s tactics were just as United’s boss anticipated, with Rhodes handed a full debut up front. The forward had scored after only six minutes of Blackburn Rovers’ 2-0 win at Elland Road in October – another occasion when Cellino was under the cosh from parts of United’s crowd – but the striker hardly touched the ball before half-time. He was jeered from the pitch amid much merriment when Boro replaced him on 90 minutes having lost Ben Gibson to a red card.
Evans loaded his midfield by shifting Stuart Dallas into a central role and the alteration had the desired effect, allowing Leeds to control possession and press. Boro were indebted to Gibson for getting in the way of a sixth-minute strike from Mirco Antenucci after Doukara sprinted past Emilio Nsue on the left wing and United goalkeeper Marco Silvestri was as much of a passenger as Rhodes either side of Boro clicking in the 14th minute.
Gaston Ramirez caused sudden panic with a low shot from the right which Silvestri saw late and parried, forcing Giuseppe Bellusci to stab the ball behind. From the resulting corner, Silvestri failed to clear with a punch and Ramirez volley at an exposed goal, denied only by Bellusci appearing in the right place again to clear it off the line.
Boro needed those chances to settle them down and Rhodes put the ball in United’s net with a close-range header on 20 minutes, only to see the finish disallowed after a cross from Nsue was adjudged to have rolled out of play. It reminded Leeds of how likely Rhodes was to score from next to nothing or in spite of his peripheral display. His last four appearances against Leeds had yielded five goals.
Dael Fry, Boro’s 18-year-old centre-back, tested Silvestri again with a well-hit strike on 23 minutes which the keeper gathered but Leeds were comfortably in the game with half-an-hour gone. Evans had talked about meeting Boro’s “benchmark” beforehand and at no stage before half-time did the teams look 22 points and 14 places apart. In is a strange trait of United’s that they rarely allow themselves to be shown up by sides at Boro’s end of the table.
With 30 minutes gone, Karanka’s side were rescued by their bar after Ritchie De Laet misread a corner from Charlie Taylor and kneed it onto the frame of his goal under no pressure. Boro bundled the ball clear but were as relieved when a long-range hit from Doukara dropped just over Dimi’s net. It was still true that for all Leeds’ pressure, Boro’s keeper did not have a save to make before the interval.
It is more and more the problem with Evans’ side, above and beyond pronounced weaknesses at the back. United’s boss, however, looks increasingly likely to continue with his squad as it is and the first week of the emergency loan market brought no new arrivals and no fresh approach for Norwich City strike Kyle Lafferty. Lee Erwin was the only spare forward on Evans’ bench, in a squad deprived of the injured Chris Wood.
The second half was a virtual replica of the first – loose and combative – but chances dried up altogether until the hour when Bellusci picked his positioning perfectly to stop Nseu sneaking a header inside Silvestri’s far post. Soon after, Stuani was presented with a glaring chance to open the scoring but smashed a volley into the ground and over the bar from an unmarked position. The forward’s failure to bury another close-range opportunity on 66 minutes was his last act before Karanka replaced him with David Nugent.
Leeds looked to be running short of energy but on 71 minutes Doukara met Taylor’s curling free-kick with a glancing header which appeared to have beaten Dimi until the keeper threw himself to his left and kept it out with his fingertips.
Rhodes immediately tested Silvestri at the other end and should have buried a header from six yards with eight minutes to go but Boro looked stressed by United’s persistence and were left with 10 men after Gibson was booked for the second time for a foul on Erwin in the penultimate minute. Doukara drew another lively save from Dimi after bursting clean through and Taylor smashed a last-gap opportunity into the crowd. Evans had asked Leeds to match Boro’s “benchmark” and Karanka could not deny that they had.