Leeds United: Shoddy second half costs Whites dear

Mirco Antenucci
Mirco Antenucci
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The noise all week emanated from Rotherham and when the night came it belonged to them.

This was Rotherham’s occasion, the fixture Steve Evans craved, and two goals in the second half left him grinning at the end of a match which slipped through the hands of Darko Milanic.

They cast Leeds United as noisy neighbours in parts of Yorkshire but the club did not live up to that reputation before last night’s derby. It was Evans who dominated the agenda, talking endlessly of stature, history, his respect for Leeds. For the best part of an hour, the enormity of it all seemed too much for his players.

Leeds and Milanic kept their counsel, as Milanic likes to do, and a Mirco Antenucci goal on 30 minutes proved that silence has its virtues. A sharp goal in the midst of a sharp performance drew the steam from Evans temporarily, giving Milanic the scent of a precious first win.

The Slovenian barely flinched as Antenucci’s shot flew in but he was pacing anxiously by the end, praying for a point.

Victory when it materialises will feel a long time coming for United’s coach but as others said before last night’s match, Rotherham was the first of his four fixtures in charge which offered him a fair test.

Swamped by three games in eight days before the international break, the chance came to think and take a breath to help smooth out some flaws.

Away from home and in Evans’ back yard, Leeds handled the first half perfectly. To Milanic’s dismay, they disintegrated badly in the second.

Antenucci opened the scoring on the half-hour, holding his nerve to bury a good chance, and the game was dictated until the interval by Milanic’s midfield and his choice of team. The diamond remained but the personnel changed, and the use of Lewis Cook at number 10 was Rotherham’s undoing until Evans’ side changed gear at half-time and replied with goals from Alex Revell and substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris.

The second, scored on 65 minutes, was buried with virtually the forward’s first touch and was all the advantage Rotherham needed. A late appearance by Adryan, lively though it was, did not alter United’s evening.

Evans had questioned beforehand whether Milanic might deal an unexpected hand by starting Adryan, the Brazilian midfielder whose debut has eluded him for a month-and-a-half.

Milanic almost used his wildcard but having named Adryan in United’s original line-up, the 20-year-old was omitted without explanation from the official teamsheet.

Adryan had a spring in his step when he arrived at the ground, unmissable with fluorescent green headphones around his neck. Photos showed his shirt hanging with the rest of the starting team in the dressing room, and precisely when he learned of his demotion to the bench was difficult to know. Milanic might conceivably have played a canny game with Evans.

His place went to Cook, a teenager who was worth a start regardless of form or reputations around him, and for all the clamour about Adryan, the midfield which Milanic eventually settled on looked more schooled for an outbreak of blood and thunder.

Cook took up the baton behind United’s striker, the position Adryan is waiting to fill.

There were other tweaks too: Stephen Warnock in at left-back – proof that Massimo Cellino has not black-balled the 32-year-old – and Gaetano Berardi preferred to Sam Byram on the other side of United’s defence.

In spite of that, the spine of the team remained intact as one Yorkshire derby at home to Sheffield Wednesday led into another at Rotherham.

Last night’s game drew a sell-out crowd – all of those present resistant to televised coverage – and the attempts to draw blood came quickly. Rodolph Austin’s shot on six minutes struck a leg and caused Adam Collin no problem but Antenucci’s strike from the resulting corner – a low volley at the end of Alex Mowatt’s pass – was close enough for the Italian to think he should have scored. Collin would not have reached a neater finish.

Rapidly, the structure of Milanic’s team fell into place nicely. Mowatt’s footwork and Austin’s drive in behind the pace and touch of Cook gave the midfield a grip of the game. Rotherham were kept at arm’s length, limited to a rising free-kick from Ryan Hall – the derided ex-Leeds player who amused the away end with a couple of mis-controls in the opening minutes – and little else until the 22nd minute.

In that moment, Leeds were distracted by a head injury to Jason Peace as Rotherham came at them, and Revell’s pass squeezed Matt Derbyshire in between Berardi and Giuseppe Bellusci. Silvestri was vulnerable but dropped down to gather a weak and wasteful finish which rolled straight at him.

Souleymane Doukara had caused similar problems at the other end seconds earlier, bullying Kari Arnason and scuffing a long ball across goal, and Revell tried and failed to stab home a Ben Pringle corner which caused bedlam in front of Silvestri.

A break in parity was always likely to come without warning and from nowhere. There are goalscoring issues in both camps, as Evans and Milanic freely admit. Rotherham tallied nine in the league before last night and Milanic’s first three games produced a modest number of chances.

But Evans’ side blinked first on the half-hour as Antenucci picked Rotherham off in a flash.

Doukara received the ball at his feet inside the home half and saw gaping space in front of him, enough to advance on Evans’ defence and feed Antenucci. The striker was alone, onside and helped by all of the time he needed to draw Collin from his line and stab the ball into the far corner of the net. His capacity to be deadly is ever more obvious.

Rotherham retaliated before half-time but Silvestri saw off the best of their chances by diving to reach out and claw Revell’s header wide, and the bite in United’s players carried the game to the interval. Hall – as feeble as he was in his bitter days at Leeds – did not make the second half.

Rotherham thrived without him and equalised in the 57th minute having pressed United without response from the previous 12 minutes.

Lee Frecklington forced his way in behind Berardi and smashed the ball at Silvestri from close range. The goalkeeper’s parry bounced down to Revell who kept his balance under pressure and hooked the rebound into an empty net.

Doukara had the ball in Rotherham’s soon after but his scrambled finish was two yards offside and the balance of the game had turned conclusively. Adryan came off the bench in the 63rd minute, taking to the field at the same time as Clarke-Harris, but while the former waited for a meaningful touch, Clarke-Harris reacted to his first on 65 minutes by charging over 30 yards and lashing a shot past a helpless Silvestri.

Tetchy and fraught with bookings in the closing stages, Adryan produced one stab at a point with a 20-yard hit which Collin scrambled behind and Antenucci conjured another when his effort from the edge of the box forced its way under Collin’s body but clipped a post and rolled behind.

It was one of those nights. Leeds know them well.

Paul Heckingbottom.

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