Leeds United v QPR: "Scrooge" Warnock well wide of the mark

CHRISTMAS cheer all round at Elland Road on Saturday. Leeds United dispatched the Championship's leaders and Luciano Becchio put his name to a new contract. Even Neil Warnock raised a smile after learning of the arrival of his first grandchild.

But Warnock being Warnock, there was time enough to spoil the mood. "Their celebrations in the tunnel were a bit over the top," said QPR's beaten manager. "They've not won promotion yet. With those celebrations, you'd think they were already there."

Others who observed the inner sanctum of Elland Road at full-time did not recognise Warnock's description. It hardly fitted with the public utterings of Simon Grayson and his players.

A win over QPR – unbeaten in 19 games before their train left the rails last week – was as good a chance as Grayson will have to discuss how far this season could take Leeds. Still he was reticent, saying that league position "is only significant when you can't play any more games".

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That is clearly a matter of opinion, though one which Warnock appears to share. He and United can at least agree on that. But the mood of impetus in Leeds is unmistakable, to all but those who will not see.

An attendance in the vicinity of 30,000 was registered on Saturday, at one of the few matches which survived the weather. There was no sense in telling the crowd not to believe as twirling scarves dominated the backdrop throughout the second half.

Forthcoming fixtures against Leicester, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Cardiff explain why Grayson is more than happy to exist in the short-term for now.

His attitude as far back as August was to think of promotion as Christmas come early. "Somebody will take this club back to the Premier League eventually," he said; just not necessarily this season.

Four months and 22 games on, Leeds are alone in second position and as prominent in the Championship as they have ever been.

The announcement on Saturday evening that Becchio had renewed a contract which was running short left no obvious trouble in the pipeline. They were additional, unexpected bonuses at the end of a defeat of a club who once gave the impression of being unbeatable. "If we concede goals like we did today," griped Warnock, "we'll lose to anybody."

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He was not altogether wrong. Had Leeds conceded the goals scored by Max Gradel in either half, Grayson would have proffered the same complaint. But there was method in United's football and a degree of intensity that QPR did not enjoy.

Gradel's second settled the game with 19 minutes to play, and full-time arrived at an easy canter. Grayson described the win as United's most impressive of the season; not even he could describe it as their most demanding. As one of a handful of clubs who had not seen QPR in the flesh before Saturday, Leeds were obliged to take QPR's reputation at face value. The picture drawn by them at Elland Road was not so flattering: a skillful team adept at forcing the pace of their games but neither secure defensively nor flush with ideas in attack.

Their shining light, Adel Taarabt, swung between imagination and infuriation throughout the afternoon, and Rob Hulse posed less of a problem than he had with Derby County on the first day of the season. A subdued Shaun Derry in the centre of midfield only helped to encourage an open game. Leeds warmed quickly to that situation and watched their wingers unleash hell.

Enthusiasm abounded in temperatures which hovered around freezing at the height of the day. United's overworked groundstaff scraped snow from the pitch until an hour before kick-off, preventing a postponement as only Leeds know how.

The promise of the largest crowd in England was motivation in itself and the crowd were not disappointed.

"To get 30,000 spending money as they have done a week before Christmas is outstanding," said Grayson. "I reminded the players of that before game."

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A manager's job has a tendency to look simple when a club are unbeaten for as long as Leeds have been – nine games and counting, with Leicester to come on Boxing Day – but Grayson is never free from the odd complication.

Already without Andy O'Brien, his most reliable defender, Grayson saw a potential problem when Alex Bruce finished United's warm-up complaining of a groin strain.

Bruce took his place in the centre of defence as planned but looked decidedly off-colour and left the field after 10 minutes.

The problem, Grayson insisted, was unrelated to the car crash involving Bruce on Thursday morning.

The premature substitution made space for Leigh Bromby, a player Grayson has found little use for this season but whose inclusion on the bench was tactically astute. By the 11th minute, United's team contained a centre-back pairing which, by Grayson's own selection policy, ranked as second-choice. There was no lack of irony in the flawless display of defending which followed.

In the opening six minutes, QPR gave what at first glance were two open warnings when Tommy Smith volleyed Hulse's flicked header over Kasper Schmeichel's goal and Hulse produced a far-post header which Schmeichel smothered.

Warnock had sensibly dispensed with his lucky shorts after QPR's first defeat of the season but the conviction of his players appeared to be intact. Leeds promptly realised that a submissive performance would earn them nothing.

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Taarabt whipped a shot beyond Schmeichel's right-hand post after running unimpeded from the halfway line in the 17th minute but Gradel and Robert Snodgrass, United's wingers, were beginning to cause havoc by then and Becchio had come within inches of burying a trademark header.

Snodgrass became so uncontrollable on the right flank that Clint Hill, QPR's left-back, was substituted at half-time while carrying a yellow card. Warnock clearly feared that another might follow.

With 25 minutes played, Snodgrass and Gradel contrived to open the scoring. The Scot turned Kaspars Gorkss inside out and crossed to the back post where Warnock's goalkeeper, Paddy Kenny, dithered under a scuffed header from Jonathan Howson. Kenny moved to collect the ball and then hesitated suddenly; Gradel sensed his indecision and smashed a volley into the net.

Gorkss should have equalised within minutes, slicing a shot wide after Taarabt's corner bounced around inside United's box, but Gradel's mis-hit finish towards the end of the first half spared QPR from a 2-0 deficit.

Frustration was evident in the body language of Warnock's team, not least during the scuffle between Hill and Paul Connolly which brought both bookings in the last minute of the half.

Warnock admitted to feeling optimistic at half-time, and the spells in which Leeds were penned in their half encouraged him. But his side's football was loose and imprecise, and their presence in Schmeichel's box no more than fleeting.

Kenny felt heavier pressure, punching away a shot from Becchio and watching Gradel dither when Snodgrass gave him a prime opportunity to shoot. He was more clinical when George McCartney chipped a pass onto the left wing, inviting the Ivorian to break forward.

He worked space out of Fitz Hall, Hill's replacement, and drilled the ball inside Kenny's near post. The reaction of QPR's players implied the game was dead with 70 minutes played.

Kenny redeemed himself to a point with excellent saves from Howson and Snodgrass as United waltzed through the final quarter of the match.

"We probably caught Leeds at the wrong time," said Warnock, before dropping a hand grenade into his post-match press call. Promoted already? "We could still get relegated," said Grayson. No over-confidence in these parts.

Leeds United: Schmeichel, Connolly, Bruce (Bromby 11), O'Brien, McCartney, Snodgrass, Kilkenny, Howson, Johnson, Gradel (Sam 76), Becchio (Paynter 90). Subs not used: Higgs, Faye, Somma, McCormack.

QPR: Kenny, Walker, Connolly, Gorkss, Hill (Hall 46), Derry, Orr, Mackie, Taarabt, Smith (Ephraim 75), Hulse (Clarke 75). Subs not used: Cerny, Helguson, Rowlands, Tofas.

Referee: S Mathieson (Cheshire)

Attendance: 29,426.

Thomas Christiansen

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