Let's not talk about Kiko Casilla yet - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Leeds United's win over Southampton
Let’s not talk about Kiko Casilla just yet.
Let’s talk about Patrick Bamford and his 16th goal of the season.
Leeds United’s leading goalscorer shook off both the effects of a heavy bang to the head and the frustration of a refereeing decision to compose himself and nutmeg Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy from a tight angle and put the Whites on the road to a 2-0 win and their third straight victory.
A collision with the shoulder of Mohammed Salisu that left him prone on the St Mary’s turf for a worrying amount of time did look at one stage as if it might end his evening, but he recovered.
A small, but significant enough, amount of contact from McCarthy as he ran past the keeper did not take him down but could and perhaps should have resulted in a penalty.
It asked, once again, if strikers have to throw themselves down to earn decisions in the area.
But when he was played through, in the 73rd minute, he was as cool as the coast breeze and squeezed the ball through McCarthy’s legs. Scoring as many in the Premier League as he did in the Championship last season is a truly impressive feat but as ever, his contribution to Leeds’ success is much more than just goals. The eight assists and the countless selfless runs are proof of that.
Let’s still not talk about Casilla, yet. Let’s talk about Tyler Roberts finally getting that Premier League goal.
A huge uplift in game time and first team involvement has allowed him to state his case for a place in the Wales squad for the Euros, if Rob Page has forgiven the hotel curfew infraction, but it was not until the fifth minute of time added on in the penultimate game of the season that he finally hit the net.
A good goal it was, too. It had looked as if the 22-year-old had squandered a terrific chance, on the break, to put the game to bed. He dithered on the ball at the edge of the area, allowing a Southampton defender to get a foot in, but that just allowed Bamford to take over with a shot that was kept out.
The rebound fell to Roberts and he caressed it into the corner, just beyond the fingertips of the despairing McCarthy. Bielsa erupted with joy and St Mary’s fell silent, again.
Let’s talk about the man Roberts replaced in the 78th minute. Rodrigo had, at long last, hit form with a promising display against Spurs and then a stunning display of centre forward play as a substitute at Burnley.
Against Southampton Bielsa used him as a number 10 from the off and the first half was frustrating for all concerned.
Leeds struggled to beat the Saints press, were unable to bring their attacking midfielder or their centre forward into it often enough and spent too much time on the back foot.
Rodrigo still showed a few nice touches and passes, but it was the second half that brought him to life. He was picking passes through lines, linking up with Stuart Dallas in the middle and giving Leeds a presence in the opposition half that they had lacked before the interval.
And then came the pass for the opening goal, a wonderful, defence-beating ball that curled over the tops of Saints’ players and left Bamford only with the task of beating McCarthy.
Leeds’ record signing has had to bide his time to shine but he’s becoming one of the bright lights as the curtains begin to close on this season.
Before they swing shut, let’s talk about Gaetano Berardi playing football in the Premier League.
This man has given years of service to a club he loves, redeeming red cards and recklessness with professionalism and an important role in last season’s promotion. The knee injury that left him crumpled in a heap at Derby County on what should have been a day of pure happiness, was just another challenge for him to hit head on.
Returning to fitness wasn’t in doubt but playing in the top flight was. Leeds have four senior centre-halves who all want to play and all have international aspirations. Berardi was undoubtedly the fifth man, but his value at Thorp Arch remains high.
According to Bielsa, the defender was in fantastic shape and so he had no qualms about throwing him on for the second half, in a double change. Berardi and Pascal Struijk replaced Diego Llorente and Kalvin Phillips.
Leeds looked a different side, perhaps not because of Berardi and Struijk coming on, but they certainly helped. Berardi played the part of a no-frills defender, aggressively striving to beat Danny Ings to the ball with urgency at the half-way line never mind the edge of the box. The clean sheet was hard earned because there was a lot of defending to do and everyone, from front to back, threw themselves into it, with luck playing its part too – James Ward-Prowse hit the crossbar with a free-kick.
Berardi deserved this, for what he's done for Leeds and for the example he sets for team-mates. If any of the new faces at Elland Road needed educating on what it means to get Leeds, Berardi was the perfect teacher. This half of football was just reward.
It went down a treat with the fans, who have enjoyed this season hugely. Let's talk about them. They'll return to the stadium on Sunday and make a racket, before filling the place properly next season. On Tuesday night 8,000 Saints reminded us all of just how good it is when football is watched by a crowd, whetting the appetite for what's to come this weekend. And given what Leeds fans have lost, during this period since March 2020, they deserve a reunion to remember when West Brom visit. Beyond that, they deserve a second season that thrills, in person, as this one did through a screen.
Sunday's game will end a season like no other, a season that has been played entirely without the backing track that has inspired so many of Leeds' best moments. A top 10 finish now is inevitable and achieving that, without fans, is quite a thing. Leeds sat eighth after their win at St Mary's and that will forever remain a bewildering, exhilarating achievement and a feather in the cap of stalwarts like Dallas, Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and their team-mates.
Now we can talk about Casilla, not that there’s much more to be said.
Depending on which side of the fence you sit, Casilla is a blind spot for either Marcelo Bielsa or a large section of the Leeds United support.
His presence on the bench this season has been tolerated with few grumbles but on the rare occasions when Bielsa starts the Spaniard, he restarts a debate that has engulfed player and club since a protracted FA investigation into a racism allegation that resulted in an eight-game ban.
Casilla has always maintained his innocence and there are Whites who believe him, yet many of those still take issue with him due to the high profile errors.
There were none in this game.
He made some smart saves at St Mary’s, important ones too, and played a vital part in the counter attack for the second goal with a beautiful pass.
Bielsa has already confirmed he will play again on Sunday at Elland Road.
The head coach has spoken on numerous times of his selection criteria and made clear players will only ever play on merit.
What Casilla is producing in training, therefore, must be special for him to have dislodged the true number one, who has been excellent of late and fully deserved his clean sheet at Burnley on Saturday.
But what Casilla produces in discourse is unfortunate, at best, for Leeds United. At this stage it seems it will only disappear when he does.
All of this has been said before. It could be said again this weekend, pulling focus from what should be a victory lap. This week should be celebrations and giddy anticipation of what could be.
The San Francisco 49ers are in town, budgets will be finalised and targets lined up to help in the attempt to compete just as fiercely, if not more successfully, in the top flight next season.
Let’s end the season talking about that.