Leeds United v Middlesbrough: Happy ending starts the year for Whites

A new year but the same old Leeds United.

Defeat flashed before the club's eyes on Saturday but could not deliver on its threat, fended off for the 12th game running amid typical drama and by the most dependable of goalscorers.

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At no stage of Leeds' Championship renaissance has a loss come closer than is did on New Year's Day, and if Middlesbrough could not condemn his squad then Simon Grayson will wonder who can.

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"Football's a funny game," he said, drawing breath at the end of a fluctuating week.

Not so funny for Tony Mowbray or a Middlesbrough team stalked by relegation and more desperate for points than Leeds.

His squad were worth no less than the one they prised from Elland Road but his deflated mood afterwards brought to mind the image of Grayson after United's draw with Portsmouth five days earlier.

Injury-time was Portsmouth's salvation at Elland Road last Tuesday, just as it became Leeds' saving grace on the first afternoon of 2011. A volley from Luciano Becchio with fully 90 minutes played - a flash of genius on a day of precious few - protected United from a tepid defeat at a time when his manager had prepared himself for the worst.

"The other day we had chances to put Portsmouth to bed and conceded in injury-time," Grayson said. "Middlesbrough had the opportunity to put the game to bed in injury-time and we went down to the other end of the field and scored."

What goes around comes around, in other words.

Becchio's precise shot was only partly responsible for the pandemonium generated at the end of a subdued fixture. The Argentinian's 13th goal of the season materialised seconds after Justin Hoyte lost his footing while attempting to kill the game inside United's six-yard box.

Mowbray looked on helplessly, decrying his luck, but found Grayson staring at the sky shortly after when Ross McCormack missed the last and finest chance of the game.

McCormack met Neil Kilkenny's weighted cross at an unmissable range but headed the ball past the outside the Jason Steele's left-hand post. Grayson took care to measure his response having seen his players push their luck but the scale of the opportunity was not lost on him.

"It's hard not to be disappointed about that," he said. "When you get a free header in the six-yard box, nine times out of 10 a player like Ross will score."

Becchio in McCormack's position would doubtless have scored. It was, as Grayson said in McCormack's defence, the probable difference between the premier striker in United's squad and one whose start was his third of the season. In no way did the opportunity give Grayson the right to argue that a win on New Year's Day was what his players deserved.

For the first time in many weeks, there were signs of fatigue in their body language and impotence in their attempts to cut open Mowbray's excellent defence. Grayson wondered whether the postponement of Boro's Boxing Day game at home to Nottingham Forest had influenced Saturday's match, setting a relatively fresh team against one who ran themselves ragged in the last week of the year.

"Leicester City, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough might be the hardest block of games we have all season," he said, with Cardiff City to come.

Ironically, the tiring defence of United's unbeaten run through Christmas and New Year did not strike Grayson as ideal.

He candidly admitted that two victories and a defeat from the club's past three matches would have pleased him more than a sudden spate of draws.

But by the time defeats for QPR and Cardiff City were confirmed shortly before 5pm, it occurred again how bullet-proof his squad have been in seeing out 12 straight fixtures without a single loss.

United's early kick-off was preceded by the announcement that Andy O'Brien, their on-loan defender, had agreed to put his name to a two-and-a-half contract at Elland Road, despite the flattery of attention from at least three other clubs.

Essential and welcome though that signing was, the subsequent masterclass came from Middlesbrough's centre-backs, both of whom suppressed Becchio easily.

The striker was selected in place of Billy Paynter but did not have the sniff of a goal before his brilliant finish. The aerial strength of David Wheater and Matthew Bates stood up to countless high balls thrown at Middlesbrough by a constrained team, devoid of their usual fluency.

The result was the absence of a serious chance until the close proximity of the final whistle sucked Mowbray's players into guarding their own box and inviting Leeds forward.

Wheater scored Middlesbrough's goal in the 20th minute, doing no harm to his healthy prospects of a January transfer to a club in the Premier League. On the evidence of his performance, several will be inclined to give him that chance if financial circumstances allow it.

The 23-year-old rose to meet Julio Arca's corner at the near post after Neill Collins turned away a cross from Leroy Lita. Wheater's header bounced across Kasper Schmeichel and rose up into the far corner of his net, evading Jonathan Howson who tried in vain to hook the ball off the line.

The crowd at Elland Road had already begun to realise that gratification from the game would require patience on their part and more imagination on United's.

Mowbray lost Kevin Thomson to a recurring leg injury five minutes later but his side's feeling of comfort was unabated.

The calm and proficient Arca pulled a shot wide from the edge of the box after Lita attacked the left wing, and a cross from Thomson's replacement, Barry Robson, glanced harmlessly off Lita's head with Schmeichel the only remaining line of defence. Leeds' lack of lustre was embodied by Bradley Johnson's sliced finish at the end of a complicated free-kick, the last act of the first half.

Grayson declined to make substitutions during the interval but he thought better of trusting his initial line-up for too long.

Neil Kilkenny and Lloyd Sam were called from the bench 10 minutes in the second half and Sanchez Watt appeared 13 minutes from time, relieving a winger in Robert Snodgrass whose body had given in reluctantly to the pain of an earlier foul. Elland Road felt a turning of the tide in a couple of meaningful chances that arose.

Watt nodded a free header wide and was unable to beat Steele with a shot from close range. The game appeared to be up when Marvin Emnes outran Paul Connolly and squared the ball to Hoyte who lost his balance with the goal at his mercy. By the time the right-back had regained his feet, Middlesbrough were splintering at the other end of the field.

Collins got his head to a long clearance and forced Steele to punch the ball clear before McCormack could score. Becchio read the bounce perfectly and whipped a volley into the very corner of Steele's net.

Five minutes of injury time gave the crowd the chance to work their magic and Middlesbrough buckled when Kilkenny came into possession on the right flank. The astonishment as McCormack's diving header evaded the net was universal.

Mowbray looked downcast but kept his upper lip stiff. "I'm sure 2011 will be a better year for us," he said, and to that end his job might be easier than Grayson's. But Grayson closed the door on his annus mirabilis last week with form, fortune and prosperity in his corner: Leeds United as he has known it for some time.

Leeds United: Schmeichel, Connolly, Collins, O'Brien, Hughes (Kilkenny 56), Snodgrass (Watt 77), Howson, Johnson, Gradel (Sam 56), McCormack, Becchio. Subs (not used): Higgs, Bruce, Paynter, Somma.

Middlesbrough: Steele, Hoyte, Wheater, Bates, Bennett, Emnes, Thomson (Robson 25), Bailey, Arca, Lita (Boyd 71), McDonald (McMahon 78). Subs (not used): Coyne, Kink, Hines, Tavares.

Referee: C Webster (Tyne and Wear)

Attendance: 30,452

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