Leeds United leave heavyweight under the table and defy Preston hangover - Graham Smyth's Verdict

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Leeds United are perfect, so far, in 2024 with four wins from four in the Championship and FA Cup, but their clash with Preston North End was of a different flavour altogether to the three previous January outings.

Sometimes it's champagne football and sometimes it's downing poitín until someone falls over.

At Elland Road on Sunday Leeds United looked across the bar at a heavyweight in Preston North End, a team well equipped for going shot for shot no matter how grim the tipple. Ryan Lowe's men have a taste for aerial battles, 50:50 challenges and all things physical. They relish, if not positively encourage, the pugnacious nature of a game. This wasn't just going to be a test of Leeds' footballing ability, but their mettle. Part drinking contest, part bar fight. And when they took their last shot, a stoppage time penalty from the boot of Joel Piroe, it was Daniel Farke's youngsters left standing. This said much about their stomach and how their tolerance for such games has developed this season.

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There was a lot to like about the way in which Leeds dealt with this game and the hangover from a previous meeting that Farke admitted was still lingering as they prepared. The Whites felt an injustice at Illan Meslier's Deepdale red card, at how they did not get more from the game than a 2-1 defeat and at how Preston celebrated on the day. That might have spilled over into another sending off or a loss of composure, particularly when the haymakers started flying in this game.

BAR FIGHT - Leeds United had to stand up to a stiff physical test in the form of Preston North End at Elland Road. Crysencio Summerville was among those cut down by heavy challenges. Pic: Jonathan GawthorpeBAR FIGHT - Leeds United had to stand up to a stiff physical test in the form of Preston North End at Elland Road. Crysencio Summerville was among those cut down by heavy challenges. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe
BAR FIGHT - Leeds United had to stand up to a stiff physical test in the form of Preston North End at Elland Road. Crysencio Summerville was among those cut down by heavy challenges. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Leeds came into this one absolutely flying, on the back of three 3-0 wins. Life has been so straightforward since the turn of the year that perhaps the Championship was always going to serve up a reminder of its trademark difficulty. Who better than Preston to deliver that message? And what better way to bring a youthful band of thrill-seekers back down to earth than a scrappy early goal? It came inside two minutes, aided and abetted by some sloppiness. A loose touch, a defender on the wrong side, a free-kick conceded, a big man lost in the area and second-best reactions to his header. Preston got a couple of stabs at it before Will Keane's outstretched leg sent the ball past Meslier to stun Elland Road.

It is testament to the character of the Leeds team and the confidence they have rebuilt since their Christmas wobble that they did not let panic creep in. The game was not allowed to develop in the same vein as the opening 120 seconds, because their response came as early as the sixth minute. Archie Gray did really well to escape pressure around halfway, Ilia Gruev beat a challenge to find space and sent the ball left for Crysencio Summerville to feed Junior Firpo. He dug out a perfect cross from the byline and Daniel James headed down and in.

You wouldn't quite call it end-to-end after that but it was relatively even for a spell, Meslier having to make an important stop to keep out the dangerous Liam Millar. But once things settled down it was pretty much all Leeds. It just wasn't Leeds at their very best. Chances came and went. Good possession in promising areas came to naught. The flair players were guilty of trying a bit too much. Preston's physical players helped make life difficult.

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But after the break Leeds were, to use one of Farke's favourite terms, back on it. Summerville, in particular, had the bit between his teeth and set about Preston with a fury. He skinned two on his way to, and along, the byline before teeing up Georginio Rutter to clatter the woodwork first time. Rutter sent Bamford away, with a defender for company, to get to the area and shoot over with his right boot. Summerville and Bamford raced through, the former unable to get a pass or a shot away. Ampadu played James into a challenge with Cornell outside the area, play going on despite a hint of handball and Bamford's effort being cleared by a defender. James then got in behind to chip a stranded Cornell and watch the ball land on top of the net.

It was one-way traffic, Preston looked punch drunk and in need of a break. So down went Cornell, asking for treatment. Whether or not it was his intention, the stoppage flattened the game and with it the atmosphere. Preston sobered up and began to dish out punishment of their own, without the football. Liam Lindsay wiped out Glen Kamara to see yellow. Ben Whiteman had a nibble of Rutter's ankle and yet the latter took the caution. Leeds fired back, Kamara's high boot and Firpo's follow-through giving Preston their own cause for complaint to referee David Webb.

The angst was bringing a subdued Elland Road back to life, but that heightened the risk of Leeds' losing their heads. When Gray was shoved off the pitch into the advertising boards he wanted a piece of Robbie Brady, whereas his manager wanted peace so his players could focus on scoring in the final few minutes. Ryan Ledson's crude lunge on the excellent Gruev and the melee that followed suggested they might be falling into the same trap that ensnared Meslier at Deepdale.

But even as the kicking and screaming continued - Summerville nutmegged and bypassed Layton Stewart only to be cut down to bring another howl of anger from Elland Road - Leeds stuck to their task, pressing forward, creating danger and winning corners. Their reward, in stoppage time, was a penalty, awarded for a handball, that substitute Joel Piroe drove into the net to bring down the house and the heavyweight. Lowe said it wasn’t a penalty, when it was, and insisted Preston matched Leeds when they really didn’t. There was a measure of irony in his belief that Joe Rodon had committed a foul with a fairly routine aerial battle prior to the penalty award. But keeping the main thing the main thing, this was actually the right result because although both teams were simply carrying out their manager’s plan and trying to play to strengths – Preston are very effective at what they do – Leeds did enough to deserve the win by playing almost all of the actual football.

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Wins like this, said Farke after Preston's late attempt to return their attention to football had been rebuffed, are the very best kind. Intoxicating. Season-defining, even. He toasted his men, who he revealed were out for some Boxing Day revenge and also looking to honour Jaidon Anthony after the untimely death of his mother. It was not, as he admitted, a vintage game, not by a long shot, but Leeds have shown they can take a dose of the strong stuff and measure up.