Phil Hay’s Verdict: Leeds United tough out tense test to go top of Championship

Samuel Saiz bundles Leeds United's opening goal over the line against Birmingham. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Samuel Saiz bundles Leeds United's opening goal over the line against Birmingham. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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TOP of the Championship after last night’s 2-0 home win, and, in this uncompromising mood, no plans to go anywhere soon. They are pinching themselves at Elland Road, from the boardroom to the very back of the Kop, as Leeds United make the masses dream.

Most among them remember the Howard Wilkinson era and those distant, wonderful memories serve as a reminder of how long it is since the club spent any meaningful time at the head of England’s second division.

But for a few hours in 2004, Leeds have not held this position since 1990 and the club are surprising many by holding it now. Game by game, the ascent has been coming.

The form which began with a flourish at Bolton Wanderers last month has flowed through seven games, setting a pace which no other side in the table has been able to match.

Cardiff City held the initiative before last night but were beaten at Preston North End, a first defeat of the season. Leeds held up their end of the bargain with a 2-0 win over Birmingham City.

Birmingham stood up where Burton Albion had caved in on Saturday, making a game of their visit to Elland Road, but they found to their cost what other teams have already discovered: that there is no way through this Leeds team and no way of keeping them out.

Stuart Dallas celebrates his match-securing goal with fellow scorer Samuel Saiz.
 PIC: Bruce Rollinson

Stuart Dallas celebrates his match-securing goal with fellow scorer Samuel Saiz. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

Samuel Saiz struck in an even first half and Stuart Dallas at the end of a tiring second, two more goals from Thomas Christiansen’s creative cast of forwards, and his defence held out for the sixth league game running, passing 600 minutes without shipping a goal.

It was fractional at points, not least when Luke Ayling pulled off an improbable clearance before half-time, but Christiansen will tell himself that any good fortune is being well earned.

There was no repeat of their 5-0 hammering of Burton and no threat of it at any stage, and if Burton felt shattered at the end of 90 minutes then United’s hell-bent attempt to demolish them came at the cost of some tired legs.

Harry Redknapp’s Birmingham chipped away in the second half, encouraged by Leeds’ diminishing threat up front, but United have not conceded from open play since the first half of their opening game and the wall stood firm until Dallas eased some palpable tension with a second goal in injury-time.

The form which began with a flourish at Bolton Wanderers last month has flowed through seven games, setting a pace which no other side in the table has been able to match.

The YEP’S Phil Hay

Millwall are next in line to try and crack it.

September is a precarious time for projections or presumptions and Christiansen voiced caution in his programme column, reminding Leeds that their form “doesn’t count for anything at this stage”, but 17 points from seven games is a big step forward, already a fifth of the total reached under Garry Monk.

This time last year, Leeds had seven to their name and were keeping Monk in a job with a late and nervous win over Blackburn Rovers, nicked by the head of Kyle Bartley.

Just over 19,000 turned out that night, a figure exceeded by season-ticket sales alone this season. Yesterday’s crowd peaked at over 31,000, a figure Leeds last recorded for a midweek league game over 10 years ago. There was no anticipation of another 5-0 drubbing but ample expectancy of a second home win.

Birmingham quickly made the point that they would not be bounced into the thrashing suffered by Burton. After a loose but entertaining start in which Pontus Jansson played Leeds into trouble with a misplaced pass into the centre circle, Birmingham came closest to drawing first blood with a header from a patched-up Michael Morrison.

The centre-back, who was wearing a facemask to protect a broken nose, weighed in with a header from Jota’s corner which beat Felix Wiedwald but dropped inches beyond his right-hand post. Before long, Jansson came up with a crucial block to stop Sam Gallagher dispatching a low cut-back from Emilio Nsue but on 17 minutes the game fell into a familiar pattern.

Pierre-Michel Lasogga – fielded again after his baby kindly delayed its arrival in Germany – hunted down a long ball and smashed a vicious volley at David Stockdale, who blocked the ball brilliantly but could not prevent a looping ricochet from dropping a yard in front of his goalline.

Saiz was alive to it and bundled in the easiest of his six goals to date.

Tails up, Leeds tried to hit the jugular and for a while were vulnerable only to uncharacteristic mistakes at the back. Lasogga headed onto the roof of Stockdale’s net and Hernandez slid a shot just wide after he and Saiz switched positions and the latter fed possession in from the right. Jeremie Boga should have done better for Birmingham after cutting around Luke Ayling and rushing his finish at the near post.

Redknapp’s players were in the game but felt the heat of the attack when Christiansen’s players ventured forward. Leeds’ passing helped – more lax around halfway than it was against Burton – and David Davis whipped a 25-yard shot around Wiedwald’s goal after a spurt of pressure before half-time.

An equaliser should have come in the first minute of injury-time as Maxime Colin nodded a header over an advancing Wiedwald but Ayling arrived with a priceless goalline clearance, sliding desperately into the side-netting.

Christiansen had made only one change to his line-up before kick-off, replacing Kemar Roofe with Gjanni Alioski, and there were growing hints of fatigue in his players as Birmingham slugged away in search of a point.

Vurnon Anita was in the right place to hack the ball clear after Maxime Colin tore through the right side of United’s defence at the start of the second half and Leeds craved the protection of second goal which almost came their way when Colin knocked a weak backpass into Lasogga’s path.

The German went for the ball and then unexpectedly pulled out, allowing a grateful Stockdale to smother it.

At the other end, Gallagher dragged a decent chance across goal and when the ball did find Wiedwald’s net on 75 minutes after a mishit clearance from the goalkeeper, substitute Che Adams had strayed offside in the build-up.

Colin found regular gaps down the left wing but Stockdale pulled off a superb low save to keep Saiz at bay and Leeds bailed water furiously to see themselves to the final whistle, made safe at last when substitute Dallas cut in from the right and beat Stockdale at his near post with 93 minutes on the clock.

Top of the league after a useful reminder that life at the top has never been easy.

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