Leeds United 1 Wigan 2 - Phil Hay's verdict: Damaging Latics blow felt by Elland Road as Whites suffer setback in Premier League quest

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
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Results of a certain nature yesterday would have given Leeds United the chance of promotion on Easter Monday but by the time the dust settled on Good Friday they were asking themselves if promotion would materialise at all.

The risk of everything slipping away was horribly apparent after a 2-1 defeat to Wigan Athletic, a club who cannot win away from home but somehow did so playing with 10 men for 75 minutes at Elland Road.

Marcelo Bielsa felt the impact so severely that he could not help thinking about the possibility of Leeds finishing a sparkling year with nothing tangible to show for it.

“If we don’t get promoted, it won’t be a season to remember,” he said. Memories were what he came here to create.

It was neither a resignation speech nor an acceptance of defeat in the neck-and-neck race which has been raging with Sheffield United for weeks but self-doubt amongst a group of players is rarely so evident as it was against Wigan.

Where that uncertainty came from, six days on from a brilliant victory over Sheffield Wednesday, Bielsa cannot know but his comments afterwards were an admission that his squad are in trouble, with three games left and automatic promotion reliant on Sheffield United losing their footing again.

There was no criticism of his players at full-time and from Bielsa, there rarely is.

The ambition was there, Bielsa insisted, and the attitude and commitment too. “When you have these ingredients, it’s not the responsibility of the players,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the head coach. The result tells a lot about me and seriously condemns my work.”

Some blame lay with Bielsa, specifically with two half-time substitutions which failed to redress the momentum which swung Wigan’s way at the end of the first half, but the breakdown was fundamentally on the pitch: a casual streak at 1-0 up, costly mediocrity at set-pieces, approach play which lost all of its imagination and a defence who grew increasingly frightened of Gavin Massey’s pace.

The Wigan winger scored twice to give Leeds the jitters and Leeds were consumed for the rest of the afternoon. It remains to be seen if they can recover full stop.

The irony was that Wigan are opponents who, with a terrible case of travel sickness, other clubs would hand pick to play.

They had amassed seven points and 16 defeats away from home before yesterday and lost defender Cedric Kipre to a contentious red card in the 14th minute. Even their manager, Paul Cook, feared the worst.

Adjudged to have handled a shot from Patrick Bamford on Wigan’s line, Kipre left the field, Hernandez drove the resulting penalty against a post but Bamford struck in no time to open the door to a supposedly simple win.

At that staging, people were talking about goal difference; the opportunity to take that crucial advantage away from Sheffield United. Cook felt no different.

“With the lad being sent off,” he said, “the first thought in everyone's mine - no different to myself - was how many can we keep it down to?’”

What he and Bielsa got was a 45th-minute equaliser from Massey and a header from the same player on 62 minutes which drained the colour from 34,000 faces inside the stadium.

In a city so accustomed to disappointment, the threat of disappointment never gets easier to take. Bielsa sounded like the weight of letting his public down was at the front of his mind.

“We’ll heal this wound only by getting promoted,” he said.

In the areas which mattered, Leeds were deficient.

Leon Clarke, the former Sheffield United striker, did a job for his old club by battering Bielsa’s defence around, creating space for Massey’s pace to burn. Leeds’ crosses totalled almost 60 but put too little sustained pressure on Christian Walton, a goalkeeper who expected to be seriously under siege.

More mayhem had been promised by the three-minute spell in which Wigan lost Kipre to a red card, Hernandez missed a penalty and Bamford found the back of the net.

Kipre walked in the 14th minute after Bamford’s attempted finish struck him beneath his crossbar, on the chest according to video replays, and having failed to bury United’s last penalty against Millwall, Bamford let Hernandez take his turn.

The Spaniard’s low finish smacked back off the face of Christian Walton’s left-hand upright.

Wigan were in danger regardless and their defensive disarray caught up with them on 17 minutes when Bamford took down Luke Ayling’s pass with a delicate touch, creating enough space to smash the ball into Walton’s far corner.

The speed of the finish so soon after the penalty stopped Hernandez’s miss hanging over the game for any meaningful length of time.

United tried and failed to make their total dominance pay again.

A clean Tyler Roberts volley was headed away by Kal Naismith with Walton struggling to get across to cover it but Wigan’s keeper survived relatively few scrapes and from nowhere, in the 44th minute, Wigan struck.

Gjanni Alioski was nowhere to be seen as a simple exchange of passes played Massey in on the right flank, with time and space to lash a shot inside Kiko Casilla’s near post.

Elland Road met his goal was stunned silence, a moment which no-one saw coming.

Bielsa’s reaction to it was to replace Roberts and Kalvin Phillips and ask Adam Forshaw and Kemar Roofe to move Leeds through the gears. The changes made no difference.

Roofe should have scored within six minutes but opted to chest a Mateusz Klich cross at Walton rather than head it in but Massey made no mistake from a similar range when Clarke’s knockdown presented him with an easy header.

Leeds were visibly stripped of assurance and oozing concern.

Wigan’s confidence grew at the same rate, conjuring a mammoth effort from a team who looked beaten an hour earlier.

Reece James clipped the top of the bar with a free-kick before Walton denied Bamford with his legs and then dived at full stretch to keep out a Hernandez shot.

In injury-time, James might have earned a penalty after a desperate challenge by Forshaw dragged him down but in the background, the clocked ticked and quickly ran out.

It is threatening to run out on automatic promotion too.