Sunderland 0 Leeds United 2: Thomas Christiansen in race against time to replace Chris Wood
Wood became just the sixth player in United’s history to net 30 goals in all competitions last season and the Championship’s leading goal-scorer was always going to be in big demand this summer.
After rejecting two bids from Burnley, Leeds finally succumbed to a third offer of £15m plus add-ons after 25-year-old Wood rejected United’s offer of a three-year extension on his current deal which already ran until 2019. Wood was subsequently left out of Saturday evening’s fixture with a view to having a medical yesterday.
A club already low on strikers gave a league debut to 22-year-old summer recruit Caleb Ekuban, who spent last year on loan at Partizani Tirana in the Superligia in Albania.
Leeds, though, still served notice that they remain capable of pushing for promotion to the best league of all as goals from two other attacking forces in Samuel Saiz and Stuart Dallas recorded an impressive victory.
Playing as a lone striker as part of United’s 4-2-3-1 system, Ekuban squandered a decent opening in the first half but grew in stature as the game progressed only to pull up injured with just under half-an-hour to go.
Kemar Roofe, who has been used by Leeds as a winger, replaced the striker as United’s attacking options became lighter still.
With Leeds having at least another £15m in the kitty once Wood seals his move to Turf Moor, Christiansen left no doubt that the New Zealand international would be replaced.
“It’s obvious that we need to sign a striker,” said United’s head coach. “We’re in a little bit of a hurry and we need to be fast. There is also the situation with Caleb. The good thing is we knew about the rumours a while ago. Everyone was prepared. We’d been working on looking at players and we have a list of players who we have approached.”
The identity of United’s targets are unclear but the club were known to be interested in Hamburg’s German international striker Pierre-Michel Lassoga though the 25-year-old’s wages looked to be proving a stumbling block to a move to Elland Road.
In the meantime, another German, goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald, helped Leeds move fifth with their third consecutive clean sheet.
The German was required to produce a decent save to smother a low shot from Lee Cattermole in the 39th-minute, by which time United were already 1-0 up through the excellent Saiz, signed from Spanish side Huesca last month for £3m.
A mistake by Lamine Kone allowed another summer recruit, Gianni Alioski, to feed the ball into the Spanish No 10 who skilfully found space in the area before rifling home a low shot into the bottom left corner.
The 21st-minute opener came just one minute after United’s captain, Liam Cooper, had shown fine reactions to head a rising shot from Lewis Grabban onto the crossbar.
But chances for a Sunderland side managed by former Whites chief Simon Grayson were few and far between and United doubled their lead through substitute Dallas with 14 minutes left. The lively Alioski again played a key role by feeding Saiz, whose rasping cross was met by a towering header from Dallas to beat Jason Steele. The absence of Wood had suddenly been forgotten.
Explaining his decision not to feature at the Stadium of Light, Wood said: “Due to strong interest from a Premier League team, the ongoing discussions with the club, and given that it has always been my ambition to play at the highest level, I don’t feel it is right that I play today.”
Dallas said United would wish the striker all the best in the Premier League, but that life moved on for Christiansen’s Whites. He reasoned: “We showed that we are just more than a one-man team. If the deal goes through with Woody then we wish him all the best but we have a squad here capable of achieving great things.”
Sunderland: Steele, Jones, Browning, Kone, Galloway (Matthews 55); Honeyman, Cattermole (Asoro 74), Ndong, McGeady; Vaughan (Khazri 55), Grabban. Unused substitutes: Ruiter, O’Shea, Gibson, Gooch.
Leeds United: Wiedwald, Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Anita, O’Kane, Phillips, Alioski, Saiz (Klich 81), Hernandez (Roofe 25), Ekuban (Dallas 62). Unused substitutes: Green, Borthwick-Jackson, Shaughnessy, Vieira.
Referee: A Davies (Hampshire).