A bad, bad night at Elland Road and Marcelo Bielsa knows now why Leeds United threw so much money his way last summer.
The club are trapped in a cycle of disenchantment after disenchantment, with no apparent way out, and defeat to Derby County in the play-off semi-finals was not far off the worst of the lot.
Leeds have sunk lower than this on the pitch and off it but rarely has a prize so close been lost in a cloud of so much panic and so much staggering ineptitude.
Bielsa and his players will regret this forever, unless the club’s head coach is prepared to stick around and make it happen next season; so close to Wembley but condemned, if they can face the torture, to watch this month’s Championship final from their living rooms by an indescribable loss at Elland Road.
Again Leeds found themselves in the play-off and for the fifth time, the play-offs found them out.
They had Derby in their palm for 44 minutes, ahead on aggregate and ahead on the night after Stuart Dallas struck from close range but horribly crossed wires between Kiko Casilla and Liam Cooper let Derby back in at the very end of the half.
Jack Marriott was given an open goal to shoot at and the game turned in the second half as Mason Mount and Harry Wilson gave Derby a 3-2 aggregate lead and the sight of astonishing result with half an hour to play.
The burst of relief when Dallas brought the teams level again on 62 minutes was unashamed and undisguised.
Derby have been given the runaround by Leeds three times this season but episode four was different, tilting the impetus Frank Lampard’s way and allowing his better players to make United fret.
Casilla’s rush of blood on half-time was followed by another from Cooper, whose tug on Mason Bennett gave Derby their third goal from the penalty spot and left a packed, vociferous ground fearing the worst. Dallas levelled but still it went on as Gaetano Berardi went through Tom Lawrence and drew a red card 12 minutes from the end.
Prone and tired, Leeds watched Marriott sealed it in the 85th minute, breaking through a weakened defence and landing a fatal blow with a cute finish into the far corner, a goal which Leeds and Bielsa will never want to watch again.
The entire evening, a video nasty, is destined for DVD sales in Derby and a dark cupboard in Leeds.
The odds and the statistics were heavily in United’s favour, as if to make the result impossible: 12-1 on with one bookmaker to reach the final and encouraged by a record showing that of the 17 Championship teams who won away from home in the first leg of a semi-final, all 17 finished the tie off.
Which was fine until it occurred that United broke the trend of teams leading the division on Christmas Day and wrapping up automatic promotion.
There has, in the main, been something unshakeable about Bielsa’s team but ultimately, not when it mattered.
There was something about him which Lampard struggled to work out, particularly in Saturday’s first leg at Pride Park, until he found an answer last night.
Drip by drip and meeting by meeting, it seemed as if Bielsa was getting into Lampard’s head, playing mind games without even meaning to. Derby were beaten soundly at the weekend, if not in terms of the scoreline, and it was on Lampard to weave some magic and tip the balance his way.
To his credit, he did more than that.
It asked enough of him without the wall of noise which met him like a concrete block as he walked from the tunnel.
Lampard found Elland Road in its element, raw and hostile as the sun went down and intent on settling the second leg in some fashion, but Leeds were not immune to the crackle of anticipation and there were nerves in Bielsa’s players.
So much to gain and so much to lose in one single fixture.
Lampard’s plan was a two-man attack of Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence and the idea worked, bringing Derby into the game quickly and with more fluency than they were able to show before. Bielsa, over three games, had made Derby’s better players invisible but there was space for Mount to use and possession for Harry Wilson to feed on.
It was not what Bielsa wanted either of them to have.
If it felt like it was there for Derby, it looked to have gone again in the 25th minute. Cooper threw himself at a free-kick from Kalvin Phillips and caught Kelle Roos,
County’s goalkeeper, flat-footed as the ball struck the inside of his far post. Dallas held his nerve as the rebound dropped in slow motion and stabbed it in with an unerring touch.
Lampard, with a stellar career behind him, must have wondered if a hammering was coming.
Mateusz Klich struck the crossbar soon after, a shot deflecting off Richard Keogh’s head and finding the underside, and it was apparent to everyone that one more goal would be one too many for Derby to swim back from.
A 2-0 aggregate lead might have been enough in itself but Casilla lost his head in the last minute of the half and crossed Marriott’s palm with silver.
The striker had been on the pitch for 33 seconds, a replacement for Duane Holmes, and his first touch rolled the ball into the net after Casilla swung at and missed a high ball over Cooper.
The pair collided as Marriott swept up the afters and Casilla, having almost shipped another goal in identical fashion second later, cut a dejected figure as he walked from the pitch.
Those errors and risky sprints from the box came with the Spaniard when he signed from Real Madrid in January and had Leeds made the play-off final there was, despite his high profile, a question for Bielsa about where his goalkeeper’s head is at.
The gift to Marriott was not his first scrape of the night but it gave the ground the jitters.
What came after the interval was just as quick: Mount losing his footing inside Leeds’ box but managing to chip a finish over Casilla with less than a minute gone. Jitters became open panic and Bielsa paced like fury as Derby threatened goals every time they attacked.
Another duly came on 58 minutes when Cooper pulled back Bennett in the box and Wilson stroked a casual penalty to Casilla’s left, to Elland Road’s total bemusement.
The contest lost all semblance of shape and in the madness, Dallas brought Leeds level at 3-3 on aggregate by cutting in off the left wing and steering a perfect shot beyond Roos, nerveless as nerves were fraying everywhere. Still it went on and Berardi incurred his second booking in quick succession for a lunge on Lawrence.
Leeds were brutally exposed and after Wilson struck a post, Marriott picked them off on 85 minutes by surging into Casilla’s box and chipping the ball in. The late dismissal of Scott Malone made no difference.
Game over, season over and for Bielsa and Leeds, the question is suddenly real and pressing - what comes next, for both of them?