Leeds United showed kindness where cruelty was called for at Newcastle United - Graham Smyth's Verdict on St James' Park draw
Sympathy was etched all over the face of Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa on Thursday afternoon as he contemplated the predicament facing Steve Bruce at Newcastle United.
On Friday night, his side had a chance to take advantage of the poisonous atmosphere surrounding St James’ Park, with reports of training ground bust-ups adding to the anger felt in the Magpies fanbase.
Yet despite taking the lead and having Bruce’s defensively frail men right where they wanted them, Leeds contrived to show kindness, allowing their hosts back into the game and then failing to deliver a killer blow.
The 1-1 result did little for either team and they both remain without a victory after five games but on the evidence of the song sheets of the respective fanbases, one camp is in a much better place than the other.
Leeds, at least, looked dangerous for large parts of this encounter, particularly in the first half, but if wins are to come then fixtures such as these have to be targetted.
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The Whites were taking it as seriously as any Premier League game, giving it full focus during the week, with the regular cast of Mark Jackson’s Under 23s kept back from the EFL Trophy game at Tranmere in order to be part of the preparations for Newcastle, where they filled the bench.
With Diego Llorente dropping out with his latest injury and Jack Harrison testing positive for Covid-19, Bielsa’s bench had an even younger look to it with an average age of just 19, Mateusz Klich and Daniel James moving into the starting line-up.
The atmosphere at kick-off was everything you would expect of two groups of supporters as authentic and passionate as the ones that follow these clubs, but inside the first three minutes the home fans were chanting for the removal of their manager while the Leeds faithful serenaded their head coach.
As the two sides flicked out their opening jabs – an off target Patrick Bamford volley at one end and Matt Ritchie’s dangerous low cross at the other – it was evident that the first goal would set the tone for just how uncomfortable Bruce’s night was going to be.
Perhaps with that in mind, Newcastle set out to be difficult to play through, every black and white shirt behind the ball as Leeds stroked it around on halfway and looked for openings, switching play and looking to get midfielders in behind the defence.
The last thing Bruce needed was for his men to make life easy for Leeds and the 13th minute opener will have disappointed him as much as the vitriol from the stands that followed.
Raphinha was bathing his eye on the touchline after an earlier incident that saw Ritchie yellow-carded, as Leeds went up the left.
When he rejoined the play, he found himself with the ball at his feet a mile out and his teasing cross was left by Rodrigo to bounce beyond Karl Darlow.
With the atmosphere turning toxic and the anti-Bruce sentiment going up a notch, Leeds dialled up the pressure, Raphinha finding more space should ever be the case on the right.
When Bamford went close with a header and Leeds won a corner, stewards had to restrain a home fan attempting to invade the pitch.
When Raphinha twice had to be foiled by Karl Darlow at his near post, the Newcastle defence static, Bruce was getting it from all sides.
Yet the hosts caused problems of their own, the pace and skill of Allan Saint-Maximin giving Liam Cooper a hard time and creating a golden chance for Joelinton, his goalbound effort saved by the legs of Illan Meslier.
The basketball game Leeds are so often said to prefer broke out, giving neutrals the kind of entertainment that became the calling card of Bielsa’s men last season, and giving both managers a headache.
Newcastle were dangerous going forward, Miguel Almiron shooting just past the post, Saint-Maximin blitzing Cooper for pace and Ritchie striking the woodwork.
But they were living dangerously at the back, falling into a bizarre habit of leaving Raphinha all alone as Leeds counter attacked.
When the winger teed up Mateusz Klich, Leeds should have been 2-0 up, but the Pole’s effort was tame and saved.
Then St James’ Park and Bruce were briefly unified, Leeds’ showing kindness in the worst way with a defensive horror show that began in the home half, Newcastle allowed to cut through the heart of their visitors far too easily before Joelinton got free of Luke Ayling and found Saint-Maximin who held his nerve and stayed patient to find enough room for a shot that beat Meslier.
Newcastle appeared intent to repay the favour, however, and the half ended with Junior Firpo streaking away on a breakaway, crossing to the yet again unmarked Raphinha whose shot was blocked.
Dan James’ follow up met the same fate and Firpo fired over the top.
The second half took little time to start serving up more of the same, Darlow rushing out of his area as Raphinha beat him to the ball, unable to make enough contact to find the net.
The keeper then had to claw a defensive header away from goal.
Saint-Maximin was soon terrorising Leeds again, Cooper unable to stop him finding Joelinton who got away from Dallas and fired over.
Meslier saved from Saint-Maximin as Bamford’s wayward pass was picked off to put Newcastle on the front foot.
As the second half progressed Leeds looked more likely to take over, but for all the promising positions they got into the killer ball or shot to put Newcastle away continued to elude them.
And with the ever-present threat of Saint-Maximin, along with the errors the visitors were guilty of in possession, Bruce’s hopes of a happy ending were kept alive.
Bielsa replaced the ineffective James and a less-than-pleased Raphinha with Tyler Roberts and Crysencio Summerville and Leeds continued to press, Rodrigo sliding a lovely ball through for Bamford whose shot was tame.
The big worry for Leeds in the final minutes was the toll the game was taking, Bamford left hobbling after a coming together, Ayling struggling for several minutes before succumbing to injury, Jamie Shackleton coming on.
Still Leeds pressed, but the walking wounded were kept at bay. A draw was not enough to save Bruce from further chants demanding his removal, but the away fans saluted their men.
Bielsa might not have been happy with the result, but even with his current injury crisis, you suspect his opposite number would swap jobs in a heartbeat.
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Thank you Laura Collins