Raphinha's promise as Leeds United defy footballing Gods - Graham Smyth's Verdict at Brentford

Raphinha’s pitch-length pilgrimage, on his knees, said just about everything you need to know about Leeds United’s resurrection.

By Graham Smyth
Monday, 23rd May 2022, 4:40 am

Requiring a result at Brentford that trumped whatever Burnley got against Newcastle United was, on the face of it, miracle territory - wing-and-a-prayer stuff.

The footballing Gods have not been kind this season, taking with one hand and then taking with the other too, and, of course, they had one last joke at Leeds’ expense.

Much of the hope in recent weeks has been pinned on the potential involvement of Patrick Bamford, who came back from a September ankle injury to score at home to Brentford only to injure his hamstring celebrating. He recovered from that only to damage his quad and then his plantar fascia. He came back again only to break down after 23 minutes at Wolves.

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On Friday, Jesse Marsch expected to have his striker available. He was back in training, running on the foot that had plagued him so, and raring to go. On Sunday, he was bed-ridden with Covid-19. It felt completely in tune with his and Leeds’ annus horribilis.

So, no Bamford, no Adam Forshaw, Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling, Daniel James, no momentum and no control over half of the events which would decide their fate.

On Friday, Tyler Roberts had returned to training for the first time since hamstring surgery. On Sunday, he was on the bench just in case. Leeds have had bare bones all season, rattling their way through a ghost train ride, haunted by increasingly hysterical pressure and fear.

The Premier League table was, for a long time, kind to Leeds as other teams failed to take advantage of the Whites’ inconsistency and struggles. But, when results began to turn elsewhere, the table stopped showing kindness and a poor season threatened to catch up with Leeds like a boulder rolling downhill.

BIG MOMENT - Raphinha started the party with his penalty at Brentford, before Leeds United went on to complete the job and secure Premier League status. Pic: Tony Johnson

And yet, they thumbed their nose to the injuries, the mathematical probabilities, the form guide, the predictions - few, including this correspondent, gave them much of a chance when they dropped into the relegation zone before the final day - and leapt out of disaster’s path at the very last second. Pleasingly, they didn’t need the gods, because they had Raphinha, earning and scoring a penalty, and Jack Harrison, firing in a 94th-minute winner.

This was survival earned the hard way, the Leeds way, but earned with a win and a points tally of 38 that proved enough.

It wasn’t a vintage performance at Brentford but it was as good as it had to be and perhaps even better than could be expected in the circumstances.

The details of the game will fade over time as the scenes at full-time live on forever, yet it’s important to note that Marsch, who can’t say he’s fully over with the entire fanbase, got it right when it mattered. Dropping Mateusz Klich, one of the best performers on the pitch against Brighton, and replacing him with Sam Greenwood to send out the youngest Leeds team of the season was a ballsy move. This was surely an occasion for steady hands, cool heads and experience. Wouldn’t a rookie wilt in the London heat and the relegation tension?

As the first few minutes played out, even the most senior of Marsch’s men were feeling it. What the Leeds fans inside the Brentford Community Stadium least needed to see inside the first 10 seconds was Ivan Toney charging down Diego Llorente’s clearance - from the visitors’ own kick-off no less - and winning a corner. They didn’t need to see Illan Meslier clattering Liam Cooper to reach a ball under pressure, or the keeper fumbling a routine catch near his goalline.

Leeds came through those moments, though, and the more they settled into the game the more apparent it became that Marsch’s big call was working. Greenwood, brought to Elland Road as a striker, was lively in midfield next to Kalvin Phillips and shone brighter than most in the first half. He picked out Jack Harrison in space on the left, whose effort fell somewhere between a cross and a shot, drifting past the far post.

Then came a moment that felt written and ultimately proved too good to be true. Harrison dinked the ball in behind for Joe Gelhardt, just as Newcastle were awarded a penalty at Burnley. Gelhardt did his job, sending the ball crashing past David Raya, and Callum Wilson did his, beating Nick Pope from the spot. VAR picking up Gelhardt’s marginally offside position and ruling out the goal curtailed half of the celebrations but, even at 0-0, the Whites were out of the drop zone.

They were playing well, too, taking the game to Brentford and playing it in the right area of the pitch for the most part until, with half an hour gone, they stopped looking after the ball and conceded possession, territory and chances.

Leeds survived the spell and, as they went back down the tunnel at half-time, they were surviving in the Premier League.

It was never going to be anything close to easy - Mbeumo wasted a glorious chance when played in behind Firpo again in the second half and Rodrigo did the same when Raphinha’s inside pass and the angle of his run took him into the box.

It took a David Raya mistake to bring the breakthrough, his errant pass picked up by Raphinha who jinked past the keeper and drew from him a challenge that Paul Tierney could only interpret one way. As all around him lived on their last nerve, Raphinha kept his and put the ball in the net.

Another goal at Newcastle four minutes later was celebrated every bit as wildly and, suddenly, all that stood between Leeds and safety was a 30-minute period of football in which they could not concede twice.

But this is Leeds.

A goal for Burnley ramped up the nerves and, although Kristoffer Ajer had limped off with all of Brentford’s substitutions made to give Leeds a man advantage, the Bees equalised.

Pascal Struijk, who was on for Gelhardt in a defensive change by Marsch, missed a tackle in the middle of the park and the hosts were away. Yoane Wissa crossed to the back post, Sergi Canos headed home and Leeds were a Burnley goal away from relegation.

In the carnage, Canos’ yellow card for his goal celebration was missed by many in the ground and, when he wiped out Raphinha, the red card followed his second caution. Leeds were facing nine men for the final 10 minutes. This had to be it.

Initially, it all seemed a bit much for them. What they had in numerical advantage, they lacked in composure, failing to retain the ball properly and allowing the nine men to break on them, creating unbearable tension. Survival was in their hands and they were juggling it.

It needed someone to grab destiny by the scruff and Harrison decided it would be him. He picked up a loose ball on the edge, drilled it past Raya and Leeds had hauled themselves onto terra firma, with Burnley floating off to the Championship. Yes, it took a deflection. No, no one cared.

The celebrations continued until the final whistle, when roars touched the heavens and Raphinha gave thanks in his own way, 'paying a promise' by walking up the pitch on his knees having asked for some divine intervention. Seconds earlier he had been whirling a Brazil flag around his head, halfway up the stand holding the away fans, leading the congregation in worship of the achievement.

If this was his goodbye, it was just about perfect, but all of that can wait. This was a holy moment for Leeds United, back from the dead.