The consolation for Thomas Christiansen was that it could have been worse, and other clubs in the Championship might have it worse against Wolverhampton Wanderers this season. Leeds United have their ideas of where they should sit in the league but they are not quite in this class, or not yet.
The table makes Wolves look like champions-elect, albeit at a premature stage of the term, and the sight of them in the flesh last night was proof that they could walk away with the title. There were moments when Leeds shot themselves in the foot as the game came and went inside 27 minutes but the balance of the game called for a dignified acceptance of the gap between the teams. Wolves have been in this mood since August and do not look like releasing their grip.
There are plenty of players who managers in the Championship would take from Molineux – the fruit of a summer recruitment which took Wolves to the door of Atletico Madrid, Porto and Monaco – but it was Ivan Cavaleiro, their Portuguese winger, who took Leeds apart with an unplayable period in the first half.
The source of the free-kick from which Barry Douglas opened the scoring, Cavaleiro then struck himself in the 26th minute at the end of counter-attack which moved from the halfway line to Andy Lonergan’s net in a few seconds.
There were others of a similar nature which threatened to end the same way and the concession of early goals left Leeds more open than ever to the pace around them. Half-time was a godsend for Christiansen and the difference it made was briefly tangible.
Gjanni Alioski replied three minutes after the interval with Leeds’ first piece of quality build-up, producing an unerring finish from Samuel Saiz’s accurate, long-range pass and Alioski’s volley from close range was unerring. Wolves were crunched out of their comfort zone but allowed to return there again quickly when Ronaldo Vieira was sent off for a second yellow card on 61 minutes. His dismissal killed United while their performance was at its height.
With Leeds at their mercy, Diogo Jota chipped home a third Wolves goal and substitute Helder Costa converted a penalty on 76 minutes after Lonergan fouled Leo Bonatini during mayhem in the box which was partly of his own making. There was a sense, again, of Christiansen’s players hanging themselves but no denying either the sharp edge carried by Wolves up front. Their manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, could not be more well-endowed at that end of the pitch.
Leeds made hard work of winning at Molineux for many years, breaking a three-decade drought there in 2015 and then delivering another win in the manner of buses before Christmas last season. There was lingering weakness in Wolves in both of those games but Nuno’s squad has been armour-plated by Fosun Group’s wealth and the contacts of Jorge Mendes. The best team in the Championship, Christiansen called them, and the final league table might bear his opinion out. Last night’s result certainly did.
With the relief of a win over Middlesbrough behind him, Christiansen’s dilemma was whether to stick or twist; to meet Wolves head-on or to sit and wait for the right time to open up.
Wolves’ record encouraged caution – one home defeat all season and six wins from their last seven games – but also warned that negativity would have an inevitable result.
The early balance struck by Leeds was sensible; enough possession to prevent Wolves from shaping the game immediately but no reckless attempts to get at Nuno’s defence. Christiansen, however, was given an example of Wolves’ end-to-end speed when Cavaleiro kept a 50-yard pass from Romain Saiss in play and stung the palms of Andy Lonergan in the sixth minute, and Wolves made no secret of their plans to hammer the wings.
Their opening goal came via that route on 15 minutes, though helped by Gaetano Berardi’s cheap loss of possession to Cavaleiro. Caught short, Liam Cooper had no option but to hack the winger down on the corner of United’s box and Douglas beat Andy Lonergan with a perfect free-kick, pinged at pace into the top corner of United’s net.
One goal almost became two within seconds as Cavaliero – everywhere in a spell of frantic Wolves dominance – crossed from the right and drew a glancing header from Leo Bonatini which bounced wide. When Cavaleiro popped up on the opposite wing, his low cut-back was stabbed beyond the post by Bonatini and Lonergan showed safe enough hands to gather a 20-yard volley when Cavaleiro took up possession again in the middle of the pitch.
It felt like a matter of time and it was. With 26 minutes gone, Jota sold Vieira a silky dummy on the halfway line and sparked a counter-attack which ended with Cavaleiro driving a shot into the net despite Lonergan getting an arm to it. All of a sudden the question in Christiansen’s mind was by how many. John Ruddy, a long way downfield, was barely asked to touched the ball.
Alioski briefly woke him up with a shot on the rebound from Pablo Hernandez’s free-kick which deflected out of a packed box but before Leeds could reset themselves, Cavaleiro and Jota were fashioning a chance which the former chipped a foot wide of Lonergan’s far post. Molineux was ringing with ‘oles’ by the 36th minute, already confident that the game was up.
Roofe almost prised it open again when his shot in the final minute of the half forced a sprawling parry from Ruddy but Leeds turned the night briefly by finding a way through the former England international in fine style three minutes into the second half. Saiz’s inch-perfect delivery from 40 yards picked out the run of Alioski who lost his marker and met the ball with a leaping volley. At close-range, Ruddy could do nothing about it.
Wolves, for the first time, looked rattled and found Leeds all over them in the centre of midfield but the parity in that area was blown apart when Vieira, already booked for a foul on Jota, slid into him again on halfway and received a red card from referee Geoff Eltringham.
United pressed on regardless, with Saiz testing Ruddy from long range, and Christiansen launched Caleb Ekuban and Eunan O’Kane into the fray with 23 minutes to go.
The improbable was snuffed out quickly as Jota broke away on 72 minutes and dinked a chip over Lonergan who then conceded a penalty four minutes later. The keeper spilled an initial shot before parrying Jota’s follow-up brilliantly and then tripping Bonatini as Wolves came again. Costa stuck the penalty away and Leeds gave up the ghost. Hands up.