Leeds United took a bloody nose from Swansea City in the last few hours of the January transfer window but they responded in kind at Elland Road last night and control of the Championship is theirs once more.
“We think this is the year,” said a brave Pontus Jansson on Tuesday and promotion draws that little bit nearer.
Jansson, on his 28th birthday, began the dismantling of Swansea with the opening goal and any redressing of the injustice Leeds felt when City failed to follow through with a promise to loan them Daniel James mattered less than a table which shows United back on top of it this morning.
It was left to James, the 21-year-old winger, to rue a move which got away and the immediate potential it offered.
Leeds were a whisker away from dropping out of the Championship automatic promotion places over the weekend but the division never sits still for any length of time and a few days on Marcelo Bielsa has the relative of first place again. Norwich City lost ground away at Preston North End and the reassurance for Leeds is that they can sit through a match-free afternoon on Saturday without the threat of anyone leaving them behind.
Swansea stood firm over the transfer of James, which is to say that their former chairman Huw Jenkins was bold enough to oppose City’s attempt to loan him out and sacrifice his boardroom seat in the process, but their team has nothing like the same bite and City’s slight, silky demeanour was crushed by a Leeds team at their most confident.
There was no overload of flair in the first half but United were two goals to the good at the end of it and were denied a wider advantage by Patrick Bamford heading a gift of a chance straight at Swansea’s goalkeeper, Erwin Mulder.
However much Bielsa prides himself on aesthetics, these are the performance the Championship looks for when the season reaches fever pitch.
Jansson struck in the 20th minute with a sharp finish for a marauding centre-back and Jack Harrison added another goal with an easy glancing header, or a glancing header which Leeds’ fluency made to look easy.
Kalvin Phillips played gamekeeper in a congested midfield, strangling Swansea’s attempts to string possession through the middle, and the stadium held its breath only once when Luke Ayling gave away a woeful penalty which Oli McBurnie converted four minutes from the end.
After a 3-1 defeat to Norwich and the relief of a 101st-minute equaliser at Middlesbrough, it was the comprehensive evening Leeds needed with just a sliver of the tension Elland Road anticipated.
The game ended a two-week interlude since Leeds and Swansea came to blows at boardroom level, failing to finalise a loan for James which was agreed and ready to go. James started yesterday but had only brief chances to show why Leeds are considering bidding for him again when the summer window opens in May.
The refusal of Jenkins, who resigned as Swansea chairman 48 hours after the window closed, to let the transfer proceed was described by United managing director Angus Kinnear in his pre-match programme notes as waste of “several months of scouting and negotiation.”
The concern when the deadline passed was less about the failure to sign James specifically than it was about the failure to sign any outfield player but Leeds are keeping the wolf from the door of the Championship’s top two with much the same group of players who carried them inside in the first place. A sore loss to Norwich 10 days earlier already feels like a distant kick in the teeth.
Norwich, the division’s leaders before last night’s round of fixtures, applied a high press to good effect at Elland Road but Swansea, to their cost, were more content to allow Bielsa’s centre-backs to play out in their own time.
The slight frame of Bersant Celina up front gave them no easy outlet in the long periods when Leeds worked possession but City are as devoted to their football under Graham Potter as United are to theirs under Bielsa.
Only one coach as made it work for him consistently.
Swansea got hold of Leeds quickly when the clubs drew 2-2 in Wales in August but last night was cat and mouse for a while, failing to flicker until Cameron Carter-Vickers inexplicably waved an arm at Patrick Bamford’s pass into Swansea’s box in the 18th minute.
Referee David Webb let that go as Bamford shouted for a penalty but Leeds found a way through without the official’s help two minutes later.
Bamford’s flick from a Hernandez corner deflected to Gjanni Alioski on the edge of the box and the ricochet from Alioski finish ran kindly to Jansson on the penalty spot. Jansson held his balance, swung his left foot and arced the ball into the bottom corner. A ninth Leeds goal on his birthday was nicely timed in every respect.
United have never lost a game in which Jansson has scored and, throughout Bielsa’s tenure, have never dropped a point after drawing first blood.
The opening goal has eluded the Argentinian’s team too often since Christmas, a concession of impetus which several teams have taken advantage of, but Swansea felt the pinch of going behind. Kemar Roofe volleyed a cross from Mateusz Klich over and Leeds were at ease until their concentration left them briefly on the half-hour.
Barrie McKay read a chipped free-kick into United’s area and squared the ball across the goalline where Mike van der Hoorn slid in fractionally too late to nudge it in. Kiko Casilla was flat-footed by his near post, unable to intervene and left to cross his fingers.
Leeds promptly profited from that narrow escape in the 35th minute.
Alioski found space on the left wing and whipped in a cross which Harrison met with a glancing header at the near post. From close range and under no pressure, the finish flew past Erwin Mulder as the goalkeeper thought about advancing to claim the delivery. Any pre-match tension was gone by then, helped by news of Norwich trailing 2-0 to Preston.
The cigars would have come out had Bamford not planted Hernandez’s perfect cross into the hands of Mulder five minutes before half-time and a 47th-minute free-kick from Matt Grimes - such a benign loanee at Leeds two seasons ago that the crowd could barely find the energy to remind him of his failure here - which caught the wall and flashed wide of Casilla’s left-hand post was a rare flicker at the Spaniard’s end of the field.
Minus McBurnie, a pre-match injury doubt who made the bench, Swansea had next to nothing.
The striker appeared on the hour, only to tread the same water, and James went off soon after to a comical ovation from a home support who thought he was joining them a fortnight ago.
At ease, on top and in control of a fixture where the pressure might have got to them, it was as convincing a statement as the Championship has had from Leeds all season until Ayling tripped Joel Asoro as the substitute drilled away from goal on 86 minutes.
McBurnie beat Casilla to make Bielsa twitch but full-time came soon enough.