Credit where credit is due and when these clubs meet again at St James Park in April, Newcastle United will have the Championship title sewn up. No team in the league has their finesse or their depth and Leeds United know they are swimming in different waters.
The majority of clubs in a competitive league are and as Newcastle reeled off an eighth straight win yesterday, it seemed that Rafael Benitez’s squad were best left to their own devices. Beneath them, the scramble for promotion and play-off places will rage incessantly and Leeds can aspire to be part of the shoot-out. A 2-0 defeat to Newcastle should not change that.
The events at Elland Road yesterday might have tempted Garry Monk to bemoan an opportunity missed. The first goal gifted by a bad Rob Green error, one big penalty appeal which went against his side in between two Dwight Gayle strikes and a crucial save from Karl Darlow at 1-0 . But there was a level or superiority in Newcastle’s football which money buys and which others in the Championship have seen already. They are not masquerading as the division’s leaders.
Leeds’ form has been compelling for the past two months, too good for several sides to live with, but Newcastle were more impervious than Norwich City before the international break; a class apart as Monk knew they might be. Pressure from his players either side of half-time could not undo the damage of Gayle’s early opener. His 12th of the season was the easiest of his life.
At some point during the recent international break, Gayle was reported to have had four teeth knocked out during a night-time punch-up but he got those he had left into Leeds on 23 minutes, helped by a combination of Jack Colback and Rob Green. Green made a mess of a long-range lob from Colback, palming it down as Gayle went looking for a error and found one. A team who had conceded three times away from home before this weekend were never likely to let the lead slip.
Gayle posed a rare threat to Monk’s defence, a player with pace to burn and movement to match, and he scored again 10 minutes into the second half, sliding in to beat Green after Ayoze Perez and Vurnon Anita passed through holes in Monk’s defence. Gayle was in the zone again, proving what £10million can buy a Championship manager. He had the distinction of driving the ultra-feisty Pontus Jansson out of his comfort zone.
Rafael Benitez is blessed with several players like Gayle and when it came to it, Elland Road’s first sell-out crowd in almost six years – 36,002, all of whom engaged in touching tributes to the late Gary Speed, a fine servant of both Leeds and Newcastle – could not compensate for that. But both Monk and those in attendance know that his team are better than yesterday’s game made them look. His midfield met a patient, methodical wall in Colback and Jonjo Shelvey.
Leeds, nonetheless, crave fixtures like this and the capacity attendance crowd told a story about how badly they have been starved of them. From Newcastle’s point of view, it might have seemed as if little had changed since their last visit in 2003 when Leeds were mixing with the Premier League but the bear pit has suffered in between. If this season has seen an awakening amongst Monk’s squad, yesterday saw Elland Road rediscover its old self. United need to bottle the interest irrespective of the scoreline.
The crowd might have been a weapon but they and Monk’s players were forced to soak up a concerted attempt by Newcastle to pull rank. For half-an-hour they attacked in waves, stretching Monk’s defence and testing United’s nerve. Benitez favoured Gayle over Aleksander Mitrovic up front, despite the reports of a fight during the international break, and the striker took 23 minutes to pick Leeds off as Benitez’s midfield pulled the strings behind him.
There were fleeting chances for the visitors before his goal, the best a volley from Matt Ritchie on the edge of the box which Charlie Taylor threw his body in front of, but the threat to Green took a while to reflect Newcastle’s aggressive control. There was some sort of moral victory in Leeds passing the 20th minute with parity but that resistance was wasted by Gayle’s tap-in.
The break of the deadlock was partly down to Colback’s imagination, forced by a wildly ambitious 40-yard lob which dropped under Green’s crossbar. The goalkeeper attempted to catch the ball on his goalline but fumbled it into the path of Gayle. With Jansson trailing behind him, the forward could not miss from a yard out. Newcastle were worth their advantage but as the best and most expensive side in the league, they did not need such a generous favour.
Monk had spoken beforehand about avoiding the temptation to contain Newcastle, of trying to make Benitez’s side play United’s game, but it was only when Gayle drew first blood that his players left their shells, rapidly realising that allowing Newcastle to dictate the pace would only end one way. A header from Luke Ayling had Darlow throwing himself backwards to glove the ball over his bar and from the corner that followed, Jansson’s header bounced kindly into keeper’s arms.
A penalty claim from Taylor on 39 minutes, coming with three defenders around him, fell on deaf ears and a stronger appeal five minutes later – made with the full force of the Kop behind it – also went begging, despite Ronaldo Vieira’s cross smacking Colback’s elbow. Though referee Graham Scott was somewhat unsighted, his assistant in front of the East Stand could not have missed it. “The critical moments we fell on the wrong side of,” Monk said. “When you play a good side it’s important you’re on the right side of them.” Newcastle rode out a barrage of corner and chances before half-time and did not look back after it.
There were periods when Monk could have done with the calming influence of Pablo Hernandez’s passing but a hamstring strain prevented the Spaniard from playing. Kalvin Phillips toiled as a number 10 and defined his afternoon with erratic set-pieces. A one-match ban, meanwhile, will prevent Jansson from featuring at Rotherham United this weekend after the defender’s angry reaction to Colback’s apparent handball earned him a booking for dissent, taking him over the threshold for an automatic one-match ban.
Neither Jansson nor Kyle Bartley could avert trouble on 55 minutes when Perez’s precise through ball found the run of Anita who did what he had to do by slipping a simple pass into Gayle. Gayle’s sliding touch forced the ball beyond Green, moments after Darlow had pulled off an excellent low parry from Eunan O’Kane at the other end of the field.
“The second goal changed the game because after that we could then control it,” Benitez admitted and for all the energy invested in the last half-hour, a two-goal lead made Elland Road think that the game was over.
Before long, the title race might be too.