Aitor Karanka’s poor record against Leeds United underlined the fact that when it comes to games against Middlesbrough, Leeds United so often get it right.
Not so yesterday as Boro’s manager scratched a two-year itch and Leeds were found wanting in the area where Boro usually hit a wall. Two horrible concessions inside 33 minutes – the second an own goal from Giuseppe Bellusci – killed a difficult match before Uwe Rosler’s players had settled into it. A thousand questions were bound to follow.
Rosler said Boro were “favourites” before kick-off – “not only for this game but for the title” – and the advantage of 2-0 lead so early in the day meant all other bets were off. A seventh straight win completed Boro’s best run for two decades and they are not a club who cry out for favours. Leeds needed plenty at half-time but were predictably given none. They were rather on the wrong end of two highly contentious decisions.
Yesterday was, even prior to the game, a catalogue of problems and setbacks for Rosler. The first was the loss of Chris Wood, his only out-and-out number nine, to injury but Wood’s absence was by no means the rub. Bellusci’s personal nightmare, peaking with his diving header past United goalkeeper Marco Silvestri, felt painful and proved decisive. In the midst of that, Jordan Botaka’s debut was honest but thankless.
Leeds had avoided defeat in all four previous games against Karanka’s Boro and it is not going to far to say that Karanka had a problem with that record. The first half of his column in the matchday programme was devoted to it. But when David Nugent scored in the second minute, he had the leg-up he was looking for.
Bellusci was not solely to blame for that goal but his refusal to attack a cross from Cristhian Stuani gave Nugent his chance to smash the ball home. When Bellusci chose to dive at a delivery from the opposite side of the field soon after the half-hour, his header sailed past Silvestri and Leeds looked beaten.
In spite of that, Rosler was seething over two incidents in the first 11 minutes of the second half which helped Boro home.
The first was referee Neil Swarbrick’s refusal to send Stuani off for a tackle which looked worthy of a second booking. The second was a disallowed strike from Mirco Antenucci which one of Swarbrick’s assistants allowed to stand until the referee approached him and an offside flag went up. Rosler needed his goalkeeping coach, Richard Hartis, to drag him away from the linesman responsible.
A reply on 56 minutes would have thrown the match open again. Instead, Rosler was left to console himself with a second half which offered a vast improvement on a destructive first. It was not an afternoon which lengthened the German’s Christmas card list and Diego Fabbrini’s 81st-minute strike against the run of the contest only goaded him further.
Sam Byram was the centre of attention at Leeds in the lead-up to yesterday’s fixture, caught in the crossfire of failed contract talks, but a bigger concern for Rosler – one he kept to himself – was the fitness of Wood.
The striker, the tip of Rosler’s 4-3-3, carried an injury through training last week and did not travel to Middlesbrough, leaving a gaping hole United’s team. Byram lost his starting place – dropped to the bench after Rosler spoke with him on Saturday – but his exclusion was suddenly less of an issue than the chance given to Antenucci alone up front.
If that selection was bold, Botaka’s inclusion was braver again. The winger had sat through three previous games, one as an unused substitute, and Rosler’s reluctance to use him with undue haste did not suggest that The Riverside would be the ideal venue to blood him.
It seemed anything but that when Nugent scored with Boro’s first attack and his second touch. Leeds never recovered from the striker’s flicked header which guided a long clearance from Fernando Amorebieta towards Stuani unmarked on the right wing.
Stuani advanced and turned a backtracking Taylor inside out before crossing to Nugent. The forward brought the ball down awkwardly but with enough control to rifle it into the roof of Marco Silvestri’s net. Of all the things Rosler had wanted to avoid, a concession in the early exchanges was the first. Boro’s euphoric reaction did not downplay the importance of it.
The passage of play that followed was an examination of United’s capacity to grit their teeth and avoid caving in as Boro tried to sweep up the points. Antenucci floated around in front of the halfway line, waiting hopefully for the ball to come to him. At the other end of the field, Silvestri’s diving save kept out a chested back-pass from Sol Bamba after Nugent and Albert Adomah sliced through the right side of Rosler’s defence.
Antenucci, still, was the catalyst for much that Leeds contrived to do well. Dropping deep in the 19th minute, his pass started a slick attack in which Gaetano Berardi and Botaka worked the ball forward and fed Antenucci’s supporting run. The Italian side-stepped around Fernando Amorebieta but left the angle tight and Dimi held his low shot at the near post.
That moment encouraged a team who were desperate to settle. Rosler watched as Bellusci – surprisingly recalled in place of Liam Cooper – muddled through the first 20 minutes but Boro’s intensity lulled for a time. Tom Adeyemi found space outside their box on the half-hour before mishitting his shot and giving Dimi no problems but Bellusci’s own goal on 32 minutes put the match beyond his side.
The centre-back dived in as George Friend whipped a cross in front of goal, smashing a header past Silvestri who stood stationary on his line. Bellusci lay on the ground for a few second, well aware of the long road back. Alex Mowatt tried to shorten it with two effort before the break but Dimi pushed one curling finish away from goal and waved the other beyond his left-hand post.
Boro’s control was palpable but they were helped three minutes into the second half when Swarbrick declined to show Stuani a second yellow card for a heavy foul on Taylor on Boro’s byline. Stuani’s earlier caution had come for a loose tackle on the same player and Taylor felt the weight of mistimed challenges from the Uruguayan more than twice. When it mattered, Stuani received the benefit of very little doubt.
More crucial again was Antenucci’s disallowed finish on 56 minutes, a close-range strike after Berardi’s volley struck a leg and ran to him. Replays were less than clear but Swarbrick’s assistant, Scott Ledger, left his flag down until Boro’s players surrounded Swarbrick and the official decided to query the call. The reaction of The Riverside bordered on bemusement when the flag finally rose.
Those sharp flashes of controversy shared the blame for a result which Rosler and certain players will not want to dwell on, even if some of their football outshone last weekend’s win at MK Dons. Fabbrini sealed a 3-0 defeat nine minutes from time when Bamba lost his footing with the ball at his feet and left the midfielder to round Silvestri and score. Whatever else Leeds and Rosler deserved, they did not deserve that.