Normal service resumes for Leeds United as Raphinha produces the abnormal in 2-2 Everton draw - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Normal service resumed for Leeds United at Elland Road.

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 22nd August 2021, 7:08 am
THE MOMENT - Raphinha gave the Leeds United fans what they came to see against Everton. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe
THE MOMENT - Raphinha gave the Leeds United fans what they came to see against Everton. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

For Raphael Dias Belloli, scoring goals against Everton has become the norm but there was nothing ordinary about the strike that sealed a 2-2 draw on Saturday.

It was hit with serious venom, leaving his boot at an unstoppable pace, yet it was as controlled a finish as you will see this season. It was lashed into the net, but with precision. A lazer, rather than a thunderbolt. All the anger of last week's defeat at Manchester United went into the strike, from a player with all the composure needed for such a pivotal moment.

And as the ball touched the net, a roar from around 34,000 of the 36,293 in attendance touched the heavens.

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This was what they had come to see. This was their reward for endless months of patience, and for the flights, long drives and rain-drenched walks to LS11 for the first home fixture with a capacity crowd since March 2020.

It was fitting that what for many in attendance is a religious experience took place in biblical weather, the clouds emptying to give Leeds' brand new pitch and its drainage system an early test.

No amount of rain could dampen the anticipation. Outside the ground there was at long last the gentle hum of normality. Elland Road had too many cars on it. Graveleys had a queue, West Yorkshire Police had a presence. Punters had pies and pints.

Once inside the church the choir began to sing, thousands of yellow flags making a spectacle of it as the two teams walked out and the miracle man himself Marcelo Bielsa took his place in the dugout.

He and his players have had plenty of football matches at Elland Road since the pandemic hit, but this wasn't so much a fixture as an occasion. The traditional songs made it familiar but the noise level made it special, adding an urgency and a tension the sport has lacked in its time behind closed doors.

The atmosphere 10,000 created for the West Brom game last season was good, but with the ground full and rocking, this was an atmosphere on steroids and amid the din, Leeds flexed their muscles. They pressed, harried, shoulder charged and tackled with an intensity to match the feeling in the stands.

Everton didn't much like it, Yerry Mina rushing a clearance that Patrick Bamford blocked, the ball spinning high in the air before being brought to a dead halt by the striker's boot, his control cheered like a goal.

Richarlison really didn't like it. He was bundled to the ground twice in quick succession, pleading looks to referee Darren England ignored. When Luke Ayling, Kalvin Phillips and then Ayling again nibbled at him all in the space of a few seconds he was left limping and furious.

Light touch refereeing is all the rage but Everton's Brazilian Olympic champion was ranting and raving, without the whistle blowing.

Rafa Benitez would later praise his men for their response to being 'pushed' by Leeds in the early stages and they steadied themselves well enough to take the lead.

Demarai Gray's low cross fizzed right through the area, Pascal Struijk had to deal with a second dangerous delivery and the third forced Liam Cooper into a desperate grab at Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

VAR directed England to a monitor where after a second, third and fourth look he pointed to the spot, Calvert-Lewin thumping home and getting right under the home fans' skin with his finger-to-the-lips celebration.

As blue smoke filled the air in the West Stand where the away support was housed, Everton set out their stall as pantomime villains. It came easy to Richarlison, who reacted theatrically and moodily to every physical contact. Mina played the role to a tee, his exaggerated movements drawing the attention of everyone in the ground as he jostled for position awaiting set-pieces.

The central defender's battle with Bamford was quickly descending into histrionics too. When a tussle for the ball at the byline ended in afters, with both men hamming it up, yellow cards came out.

It suited Leeds that things were heating up, though. They were regaining control and Raphinha was pulling into central areas to threaten Pickford's goal from distance.

Although the winger was involved in the inevitable breakthrough, it was a much more familiar face who hit the net.

Raphinha brilliantly turned Ayling's long ball towards Bamford, who got there before Michael Keane, charged into space and fed Mateusz Klich, the Pole finishing with aplomb.

Klich was scoring goals, Leeds were in full flight, their fans in full song and as yellow smoke mingled with the blue, it was all very much like old times.

It would not have been Leeds United if they did not do it the hard way, however, and when Gray freed himself sufficiently of Stuart Dallas' attention to spin and catch Illan Meslier out with a low finish, Everton were back in front.

The goal, five minutes into the second half, wobbled Leeds and put the visitors on a sure footing. They looked much more at home, going about their business smartly with the minimum of fuss and none of the first half drama.

During that spell Leeds came to rely on Meslier to keep them in it. He saved well from Calvert-Lewin twice, the second time after Alex Iwobi drifted past Junior Firpo like he wasn't there.

Bielsa's response was swift and decisive, withdrawing Firpo and sending on Jamie Shackleton to combat the influential Gray's pace, with Tyler Roberts taking Klich's place.

Dallas moved to the left of the midfield trio in a 3-3-1-3 and came into his own, driving Leeds forward, making big interceptions and big strides up the pitch.

Kalvin Phillips, back in the side after sitting out at Old Trafford, showed why he was so badly missed and fought through obvious tiredness to continually get forwards and back, helping to wrestle control of the game. Bamford was still fighting for everything and making a nuisance of himself.

For all their momentum, Leeds lacked magic until Raphinha ran onto a ball teed up by Cooper and with his left boot lit the blue touch paper. Elland Road erupted.

Nothing in the remaining 18 goalless minutes was half as memorable, although the game retained its tension.

A draw did not feel unjust yet Bielsa expected his men to make more of their spells of dominance.

Importantly, it was fun, in the way Leeds games normally are under Bielsa.

Crucially, they were competitive again, a week after looking lost against Manchester United. A response to that capitulation was needed, especially in front of their own. For Raphinha in particular, something better than what he showed at Old Trafford was required. The standard he set last season was so high that big things are expected from a player who normally produces the abnormal. Aside from his key part in Klich's goal and the equaliser, there were enough flashes of skill and speed to classify this as a proper introduction to Elland Road.

The fans set the stage and he graced it with something special. If this is the new normal, it won't get old.