Phil Hay's Verdict: Leeds United and Christiansen relishing pressure in pole position
NEIL WARNOCK dodging talk of promotion is the surest sign that Cardiff City's manager is starting to fancy it. He is cast in the role of a firefighter these days, rescuing one club after another, but it was always the thought of 'that eighth promotion' which kept retirement at arm's length.
Cardiff pinched a 2-1 win over Sunderland on Saturday and afterwards Warnock told the BBC that he was giving more thought to his next holiday than the long game his club are involved in.
Tomorrow he hosts a head coach who is happy to take the Championship table at face value.
“If there’s pressure because we are up there then I like it,” Thomas Christiansen said.
“I like that instead of the pressure where you are forced to win not to get relegated.”
There was some danger of relegation when Warnock and Leeds United walked away from each other in 2013 but not this year.
Win number six at home to Ipswich Town sends Leeds to Cardiff tomorrow with the rest of the Championship below them and Warnock’s squad trailing in third on goal difference.
If Ipswich, as Christiansen defined it, was a “six-point game” then Cardiff away is nothing less than that; the start of a week which will decide nothing but say plenty about Leeds’ durability.
There was enough of it at Elland Road on Saturday as Ipswich, a top-six side themselves, came out on the wrong side of a five-goal scoreline, beaten 3-2 as their defensive charity narrowly outweighed United’s.
The crucial goal when it came was a definitive gaffe, an ordinary Pablo Hernandez corner spilled over the line by Ipswich goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski, and the urgency of the football leading up to full-time befitted a day when the result seemed to matter more than anything.
“We suffered at the end but most important was three points,” Christiansen said.
They mattered because of Cardiff and Wolverhampton Wanderers breathing down United’s neck but also because of the no-show which Christiansen’s players turned in at Millwall seven days earlier.
Ipswich applied some of Millwall’s tactics, pressing aggressively and varying their attacks on United’s defence, but Leeds were less confounded by it and more resistant to it.
Mick McCarthy, Ipswich’s street-wise manager, cut a disappointed figure at the end.
“We played well, which makes it more galling,” he said.
Last season, midway through October, McCarthy openly declared Newcastle United “champions” after his team were handed their collective rear-end at St James’ Park.
On Saturday he was less certain if Leeds were as likely to last the pace at the top of the league.
“Good luck to Leeds because people know my fondness towards them,” McCarthy said.
“You didn’t see my team show them any fondness today.”
For 90 minutes it was punch for punch and often in quick succession. Pierre-Michel Lasogga picked Ipswich off in the 13th minute, drawing Bialkowski and beating him after Conor Shaughnessy’s weighted pass rolled through the biggest of gaps.
David McGoldrick equalised on the half-hour, heading home unmarked and cheaply from Gavin Ward’s free-kick, but Leeds were in front again within two minutes after Samuel Saiz cushioned the ball into the box, leaving Kalvin Phillips to skip around Bialkowski and squeeze a shot inside his near post.
Christiansen had taken the decision beforehand to field Shaughnessy at centre-back, keeping Pontus Jansson in the wings after a minor hamstring strain and before a hell-for-leather trip to Cardiff. Without Jansson’s knack of killing set-pieces, Leeds gave chances away and played themselves into trouble as Felix Wiedwald stuck rigidly to a policy of playing out from the back.
A header from Luke Chambers was cleared off the line by Vurnon Anita at the end of the first half as Ipswich chipped away.
Christiansen said later that he did not want his fluid philosophy to run to excess. “It’s something we have to work on,” he said. “The opponent saw what we were doing and we have to be able to adapt.”
Ipswich showed signs of forcing another equaliser in the second half and McGoldrick fired a perfect cut-back from Joe Garner over the crossbar on the hour as Felix Wiedwald and some of his defence rushed to obstruct him inside the box.
But with 67 minutes played, Bialkowski allowed a curling corner from Hernandez to slip from his hands and bounce down between his legs. The first use of goalline technology at Elland Road gave Christiansen’s side a 3-1 lead.
McCarthy was already in the process of throwing on two forwards and within four minutes, Garner was finishing off the rebound after Wiedwald pushed a Dominic Iorfa shot back into his box.
“It was an intense game which had everything,” Christiansen said.
“In the second half we should have kept that result and controlled it a little better. Ipswich had to try to go for the draw and that put us under pressure. We weren’t able to come out of that in the proper way.”
After the jeopardy of Millwall, United’s resistance on Saturday proved to Christiansen that his squad can cope when the going is heavy.
Eunan O’Kane took it upon himself to interfere with everything in the closing minutes and Leeds’ defence denied Ipswich the opening they needed.
At the final whistle, the scrap for the finishing line felt like useful preparation for Cardiff tomorrow and Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on Sunday afternoon.
“Ipswich were only two points away from us and we knew it was a six-point game,” Christiansen said. There was no mistaking the 44-year-old’s ambition.
For McCarthy, approaching the start of his sixth year at Ipswich, more simple targets were in mind.
“My aim always is to p*** off all the people who write me off,” he said.
“I’ve been doing it for 25 years.”
Tomorrow Christiansen locks horns with another manager who can probably relate to that philosophy.