Leeds United v Crystal Palace: Becchio clips Eagles wings

Crystal Palace were nothing if not forewarned. The force of will that engulfed them at Elland Road was exactly as their assistant manager feared it might be.

"There's always a point when something clicks and they come at you in swarms," said Dougie Freedman, accepting that a win over Leeds United would not yield itself without drawing blood. "They've got a fantastic knack of blowing teams away." And lo it came to pass.

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Freedman planned to remind Palace's players of the need to "use their heads" when pressure came to bare on Saturday – something he witnessed at close quarters while on loan at Leeds in 2008 – but he and George Burley are not the first management team to find that clear thinking at Elland Road is easier in theory than in practice. Outmanoeuvring Leeds inside their own four walls is a fine art.

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Bristol City drew that conclusion last month after Luciano Becchio won

a delicately-balanced game with the quickest of hat-tricks. The striker threatened to surpass himself on Saturday by scoring twice in two minutes, settling a fixture that Leeds were in far greater danger of losing.

United's manager, Simon Grayson, could feel an unbeaten sequence of six matches slipping through his fingers before Becchio pulled Leeds from the fire.

His first goal – scored with undisguised urgency nine minutes before the final whistle – came with the sound of the dam in front of Palace's net cracking. Leeds had chipped away desperately at a 1-0 deficit until

Palace threw up a chance too close to Julian Speroni for the keeper to deal with.

Before the merits of a draw had time for discussion, Becchio careered through a defence in disarray and buried another scrambled opportunity.

"We encouraged too much pressure," said Burley, the lament of many a beaten coach at Elland Road.

Grayson would not have found excuses scarce had time run out on him. At the top of the list was the inexplicable failure of his players to take any of several invitations to open the scoring

As the game wore on, Speroni's brilliance took an increasing amount of the blame, single-handedly responsible for protecting Palace's 44th-minute goal. "You thought it might be one of those days," said Grayson. "Their keeper was outstanding." So too was the game.

Leeds' assault on Palace became so full-blooded that Grayson's line-up was dangerously top-heavy with 10 minutes to play, containing three centre-forwards, three wingers and two midfielders of attacking ilk. It was Grayson's way of saying that defeat by one goal or five was all the same to him, so long as his team were not left wondering.

Jonathan Howson reverted to right-back and Becchio was waved back onto the field in the 77th minute when he assumed that the introduction of Billy Paynter would be at his expense. Andrew Hughes stepped aside instead.

Beset by an attack with more prongs than Burley could have planned for, the laws of chance said Palace would buckle eventually. The pressure from Leeds was overwhelming and the club's reappearance in the Championship's play-off positions made their persistence worthwhile.

It was not the first time in the past month, or indeed in the months of his tenure, that Grayson has credited Becchio with completing the act of salvage. The Argentine's claim to a new contract, and one that meets his financial demands, has hardly been weakened by his depiction as talisman and executioner twice in the space of three weeks. "It's why we're trying to keep him," said Grayson.

Becchio left the field at full-time with the acclaim of Elland Road. Bradley Johnson, in contrast, departed after 55 minutes to the sound of jeering and booing, a direct attack on his recent decision to reject a final contract offer from Leeds. Away fixtures at Norwich City and Reading allowed the controversy to simmer last month but the elephant in the room found its voice on Saturday. Elland Road's criticism of Johnson was more scathing and swift than when Jermaine Beckford ran the same gauntlet last season.

"We were losing when Bradley came off," said Grayson. "Sometimes that gives the fans a free opportunity to have a go." United's manager was in no position to describe Johnson's performance as his finest, with or without the ball, but he might have added that the scoreline at the time of the substitution was of his side's making.

Their opportunities before half-time ran close to double figures, several of them glaring. Burley was seen waving his defence forward with 15 minutes played, urging a departure from the caution and deep positioning that beckoned Leeds forward.

Howson beat Speroni after five minutes but saw his clinical finish fall victim to a late and questionable offside flag. Midway through the first half, Howson smashed a shot against Speroni with much of the net to aim at after Robert Snodgrass dribbled around David Wright, Palace's feckless left-back.

Max Gradel, too, showed a criminal lack of accuracy in the 38th minute by dragging the ball wide of an empty net, prompted again by Snodgrass' probing.

Wright was Palace's obvious weak spot, before and after Burley switched him to the right side of defence. The move was apparently designed to spare him from Snodgrass' punishing energy but Grayson reacted by involving Lloyd Sam a minute later, asking the former Charlton Athletic player to continue Wright's torture.

That area aside, Palace did not display the frailty of a club on the path to relegation. Grayson's desire to see Saturday's fixture outwit the snow and avoid a postponement was never down to a suspicion that Burley's squad were especially vulnerable. Three successive home wins said otherwise.

Speroni shone but others impressed; Neil Danns, Palace's goalscorer and playmaker, is a midfielder who might fit Grayson's requirements if Johnson is sold in January.

Danns scored a minute before half-time, tucking the ball away at the far post after Nathaniel Clyne caught Johnson ball-watching and sprinted to the byline. His cut-back was perfect and Danns couldn't miss. The finish was at odds with Palace's assurance in the first half but not with their chances, two of which had been as good as anything thrown at Speroni.

James Vaughan, the on-loan Everton striker, made a feeble attempt to curl the ball into the top corner of Kasper Schmeichel's net after Kieran Djilali found him unmarked 16 yards from goal. Darren Ambrose's shot in the 25th minute hit the feet of Schmeichel before deflecting behind. Both opportunities gave a warning of the goal to come.

Schmeichel denied Palace a second by pushing Ambrose's free-kick over his crossbar in first-half injury-time but the Dane's involvement in the second half was fleeting. Speroni soaked up more pressure, parrying a volley from Neil Kilkenny and a header from Becchio. Ross McCormack's disallowed goal, like Howson's ruled out for an offside flag, was another kick in the teeth,

More crucial was Danns' failure to kill the game with 12 minutes to play, turning inside Schmeichel's box and clipping the outside of a post. "A second goal would have killed the game," Burley said. "We could have finished them off."

The Scot was left instead with a feeling of creeping death. In the 81st minute, Becchio reached a bouncing ball after George McCartney headed on Kilkenny's corner, and Speroni could do nothing.

The keeper was helpless again when a foul on McCormack nudged possession into the path of Becchio, who sized up Speroni and drove a shot under his body.

"Luciano's got an eye for a goal," Grayson said. "But the one thing you know is that he'll always give everything for the club." A signature on the dotted line is all they are missing.

Leeds United: Schmeichel, Hughes (Paynter 77), O'Brien, Bruce, McCartney, Snodgrass, Kilkenny, Howson, Johnson (Sam 55), Gradel (McCormack 55), Becchio. Subs not used: Higgs, Collins, Faye, Somma.

Crystal Palace: Speroni, Clyne, Davis, Gardner, Wright, Djilali (O'Keefe 54), N'Diaye (Zaha 86), Danns, Ambrose, Vaughan, Counago. Subs not used: Price, Barrett, Doorman, Cadogan, Obika.

Referee: A Haines (Tyne and Wear).

Attendance: 25,476.

Thomas Christiansen

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