'Why not!' - Ilia Gruev explains Leeds United thinking behind goal as play-off final ambition highlighted

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The Bulgarian netted his first Leeds United goal at the perfect time to help book a place in Sunday's Championship play-off final.

Ilia Gruev admits his decisive opening goal in Thursday’s play-off semi-final win over Norwich City came from a last-minute decision to try and catch Angus Gunn out.

Gruev kicked into gear an electric Leeds United performance during last week’s 4-0 second-leg thumping of Norwich, curling in a long-range free kick inside seven minutes. It was the Bulgarian midfielder’s first goal since making the move to Elland Road last summer and set the wheels in motion for Joel Piroe, Georginio Rutter and Crysencio Summerville to put their visitors to the sword.

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Replays of the goal showed Gruev appearing to gesture towards the Leeds bench as if he were crossing to the back post before engaging in discussions with Summerville, whose run over the ball pulled away one of the two-man Norwich wall. And speaking earlier this week, the 24-year-old revealed his initial plan was indeed to swing in a cross, only to change his mind after seeing Gunn roaming out of his goal.

“It was a very emotional game last week and we are very happy that we did it,” Gruev told LUTV. “Now we know we have a great game and a final at Wembley. My first thought [for the goal] was that I would cross, but then I saw the goalkeeper and I thought let’s try it, why not! 

“It was amazing. It was a great goal in the moment and it was a big moment for me. Unfortunately I don’t score so much, but it was an important one so it was good. I think we played a very good game. We were very dynamic and very mature. It was a great performance from us and it gave us a lot of confidence for the upcoming game.”

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Thursday’s performance saw Leeds back to their scintillating best at the perfect time, with victory over Norwich securing a place in the Championship play-off final. Daniel Farke’s side face Southampton at Wembley on Sunday and could be just 90 minutes away from an instant return to the Premier League.

Farke will need to be ‘on it’ all week in a bid to keep heads level at Thorp Arch, although the German is seemingly blessed with a host of laid back players such as Glen Kamara. Play-off experience is lacking among those likely to start on Sunday but that could easily be seen as a positive, with the right personality likely to relish the occasion with no fear of past heartache - at least that’s how Gruev feels.

“It is going to be a full stadium and a lot of people are going to watch the game in a lot of countries,” the Whites midfielder added. “You play football because of these kinds of games. Of course, we were a little bit down after the last game [of the season], when we knew we hadn’t been promoted directly because we wanted to go for it.

“But now we have another chance and it was very important to win the semi-final. Now it would be even better to go up at Wembley, at such a big event. The atmosphere and the emotions in this game are going to be amazing. You feel in the city a lot of people are really looking forward to this game. You felt this after the Norwich game and it is great because a lot of people are talking about it.

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“The whole season our supporters have been great, but it was a special atmosphere against Norwich, it was incredible. I think at Wembley, we are going to make it like a home game for us, which gives us a lot of motivation and energy.”