The honour went to Sheffield United at Elland Road, courtesy of David Brooks’ 81st-minute winner, and there was no disguising the fortuitous nature of the point Leeds almost banked.
It would have ranked as the most valuable of the season in the sense of being their least deserved had Brooks not found a way past Andy Lonergan in the closing stages. Kalvin Phillips’ rocket of a volley late in the first half punctuated a period of football in which Leeds were in danger of being seriously schooled by Chris Wilder’s side.
Billy Sharp scored after two minutes and should have had a hat-trick by the 45th, denied twice by improbable saves from Lonergan. A Yorkshire derby which promised drama provided masses of it and in that spirit, Leeds were denied by the post when Samuel Saiz, who came to life after the interval, beat Jamal Blackman on 57 minutes. Two sides who rarely or never draw were heading for a share of the points until the talented Brooks made his mark.
There was more in the second half for Christiansen to warm to and prior to Brooks’ winner, the disparity which had been glaring before half-time lessened in a blood-and-thunder period. Gjanni Alioski, whose cross set up Phillips’ volley on 34 minutes, might have pinched a win with a close-range header and little by little, Leeds stifled the threat of Sharp and Leon Clarke up front. Clarke, however, laid on the through-ball which Brooks tucked away, sending the Blades to the top of the table.
The comparison between the sides was more flattering by the end than it had been in the beginning but from Christiansen’s perspective, there was no definitive verdict on his side’s ability to last the pace in the fight for automatic promotion. Phillips’ strike was the peak of Leeds’ evening, the cleanest of finishes from nothing at a time when Christiansen badly needed it. That he avoided a red card in the second half, for a foul on George Baldock, was a bonus for Christiansen, even if the yellow card shown to him incurred a one-match ban.
Christiansen’s pre-match hint at plans for a three-man defence – matching up to Sheffield United’s established formation – was, as seems to be his way, a straight-faced bluff. Vurnon Anita replaced the suspended Gaetano Berardi in the only change, a trade-off which called for no rearrangement of Christiansen’s tactics, and neither manager made any concession for the other.
It did not take long before Christiansen wished that he had.
There was shared endeavour beforehand, however, as both clubs pushed Leeds’ appeal to raise £200,000 for Toby Nye, a young supporter in need of treatment for cancer. United captain Liam Cooper provided the finishing touch by carrying the youngster onto the field before kick-off. The defender had barely taken up position when Sharp scored.
Sharp’s goal came at the end of the game’s first attack, a back-post header which the striker wasn’t going to miss from a few yards out. Lonergan got a touch on the ball but could only help it into the net as Sharp put all his power behind a delivery from Mark Duffy. Sharp has already claimed more goals this season than he scored in a full, forgettable year at Elland Road.
Leeds, from the outset, were riddled with nerves and mistakes. Lonergan lost possession to Clarke inside his box soon after Sharp’s finish but was fortunate to see Sheffield United drift offside. Clarke then stabbed the ball wide of the far post after Sharp and Duffy combined on the left wing. Leeds were crying out for the confidence which flowed through Sheffield United’s early football.
Christiansen’s side abandoned their play-from-the-back policy at Bristol City last weekend, to good effect, but their rangy passing was horribly wayward last night, giving Wilder’s side more and more freedom to play. Ayling’s urgent defensive header stopped Enda Stevens’ attempt to tuck away another cross from the right on 16 minutes and Lonergan was in the right place to hold a rising effort from George Baldock moments later. Leeds had not so much as threatened by that stage.
Sheffield United’s high-octane pressing continued to work for them, forcing an error from Matthew Pennington on 27 minutes which in turn led to a brilliant save from Lonergan. The goalkeeper pushed Sharp’s finish over the crossbar after Clarke pounded on Pennington’s poor pass and hooked a pass in from the left. The visitors were queuing up around United’s area as an anxious Christiansen looked on.
The equaliser that came on 35 minutes, then, was as against the run of play as equalisers get. A high delivery from Gjanni Alioski into Sheffield United’s area was headed out by Cameron Carter-Vickers to Phillips, who struck a shot perfectly on the volley, driving it too the right of Jamal Blackman. In the circumstances it was going to take a finish as good and as out-of-the-blue as that the stunt the visitors’ impetus.
Even so, it took another superb reaction from Lonergan at the very end of the first half to deny Sharp one-on-one as Sharp reacted first to a quick free-kick from Duffy. The teams were level after 45 minutes of a derby which Sheffield United might have won comfortably by then.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, Christiansen had withdrawn the injured Cooper and turned to Pontus Jansson, six days after dropping the Swede at Ashton Gate. Jansson’s period of reflection on the bench might prove to be short-lived. Leeds began to gain some traction and within seconds of Jansson appearing, they struck the post with a left-footed shot from Saiz which beat Blackman. The rebound ran kindly for Sheffield United who hacked it away.
There were contentious moments aplenty: Paul Coutts hanging onto the back of Saiz’s shirt to stop the Spaniard breaking downfield and Phillips receiving a yellow card for a risky and over-the-top foul on Baldock which might have earned more serious punishment. Alioski, however, should have done more with a Saiz cross than head weakly at Blackman on 69 minutes and United were made to pay nine minutes from time when their defence lost its shape suddenly and allowed Brooks to drive Clarke’s pass inside the far post, six minutes after taking to the field. Lonergan could do nothing and was left to reflect that two immense saves earlier in the game had merely delayed the inevitable.