Christmas is behind them but Leeds United continue to make mincemeat of December.
In a month of convenient fixtures Burton Albion looked like the pick of them and a three-minute salvage job in the second half forced the Pirelli Stadium to pay out this time.
It was, as Thomas Christiansen predicted, rather different to September when Burton played the part of a ragdoll at Elland Road and more akin to April’s costly defeat at the Pirelli but Leeds are driving forward relentlessly and their Boxing Day victory revealed a power of recovery which Christiansen had not seen before.
Prior to yesterday, the club had lost every game in which they conceded first and they were heading that way again after Tom Naylor’s first-half tap-in saw Leeds retreat into their shell for half-an-hour.
There was trouble afoot until a brilliant free-kick from Pablo Hernandez, amid some odd antics from goalkeeper Stephen Bywater, saw Burton revert to type.
Hernandez struck in the 61st minute with a deft stroke of his right-boot, beating Bywater who had been booked for pulling down Eunan O’Kane’s shorts as Burton’s wall organised itself. Bywater was embarrassed and Nigel Clough’s players were reminded of the hole they are in.
Leeds were 29 minutes from the dubious distinction of being the first team since Fulham on September 16 to drop a point at the Pirelli but one concession led to another three minutes later as Ronaldo Vieira cut Burton’s defence in two and allowed Kemar Roofe to finish them off. After a long struggle to respond to Naylor’s effort, the turnaround when it came was sharp and impressive.
The same has been true of United’s Championship season and their transition from regular defeats to a streak of six wins from eight games. December alone has yielded 13 of 15 available points, with bottom-of-the-table Birmingham City away to come on Saturday. The club’s reward is a four-point cushion over Middlesbrough in seventh and a five-point gap to Bristol City in second, a stronger position than Leeds held a year ago.
Burton’s tight stadium brought back memories of Leeds’ capitulation there in April, the loss which crushed them last season.
But the Pirelli has spent the months since losing the aura it had. Burton were on a run of seven straight defeats at home before yesterday, a streak unlike anything they have experienced in the Football League, and guilty of conceding goals in spades.
In a month of convenient fixtures Burton Albion looked like the pick of them and a three-minute salvage job in the second half forced the Pirelli Stadium to pay out this time.Phil Hay
Leeds discovered that trait at Elland Road in September, sticking five past Clough’s side without any hint of a reply, but Christiansen’s line-up was missing the metronomic presence of Samuel Saiz.
United’s head coach – always coy on the subject of injuries – insisted over the weekend that Saiz would recover from a calf strain in time to start but Hernandez took the reins at No 10. His experience and finesse took over when it mattered.
Leeds’ initial tactics focused on Tom Flanagan, a centre-back being utilised at left-back by Clough, and the lack of pace amongst Burton’s defence. There was space in behind but not enough to find Burton out.
Roofe screwed an early shot wide after chesting down Luke Ayling’s chipped pass and Gjanni Alioski sent a volley past the far post after a high ball into Bywater’s box bounced out of a crowd of players.
Hernandez should have done more with a low cut-back from Pawel Cibicki which slipped off his boot in the 18th minute.
Burton also applied attention to the left side of United’s defence, with limited success. Flanagan lobbed a volley narrowly over Felix Wiedwald’s crossbar after Sean Scannell’s cross evaded Cibicki’s attempt to intercept it but by the 20th minute it felt that a Leeds goal was coming.
Roofe almost claimed it, turning and firing across Bywater after O’Kane picked him out, and there was rarely much cause for Christiansen’s midfield to look over their shoulders.
From nowhere, on the half-hour however, Burton scored.
Marvin Sordell gave them the chance to attack by tempting Pontus Jansson to nudge him in the back on halfway and when play ran to Lucan Akins, his shot bobbled towards the back post where Naylor forced a sitter into Wiedwald’s net.
The balance of the game shifted quickly and Leeds’ positional dominance began to fade. A clever ball into Roofe three minutes before half-time went begging as Burton’s defence crowded him out and Leeds were lucky to see Jamie Allen finish rashly after Scannell sounded the counter-attack from an Alioski free-kick.
Christiansen was grateful for the chance to regroup at half-time, though a tackle by Gaetano Berardi earned him a yellow card and sparkled scuffling between Jansson and Jake Buxton as the whistle sounded.
To Christiansen’s concern, Leeds continued to ship chances. Marvin Sordell was a fraction away from curling an effort inside Wiedwald’s far post on 48 minutes, prompting a pointed reaction from a concerned away end behind the German’s goal, and Naylor was sparing with a free header from Lloyd Dyer’s free-kick, aiming it weakly into Wiedwald’s arms.
Hernandez made those let-offs count on 61 minutes, just as Leeds were yearning for inspiration.
Flanagan dived in and brought down Roofe on the corner of Burton’s box and after Bywater had been shown the most bizarre yellow card, Hernandez punished an apparent loss of concentration by beating him inside his left-hand post with a perfectly flighted free-kick.
Burton have taken heavy punishment this season and the Spaniard’s goal left them punch-drunk.
Three minutes later, Vieira slotted the ball through a huge hole in the centre of Burton’s defence and Roofe was onto it quickly, drawing Bywater and knocking a calm finish to the left of him.
Roofe might have scored again with 15 minutes to play when his effort from out wide deflected beyond Bywater’s net but Burton are no more flush with goals than they are with home wins and the forward’s strike was ample protection in the time that was left, even allowing for the biggest of goalmouths scrambles with five minutes of injury-time played.
There is no sign of this bubble bursting.