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leeds united 2 – 0 derby county: anything can happen

leeds united 2 – 0 derby county: anything can happen


At last, a game we can enjoy.

It’s been hard to be enthusiastic about Leeds this season. We’ve been frequently awful, for one thing. And for another, the times when we’ve been good have been too brief to forget how awful we’ve been as a rule.

Take Bournemouth away, for example, which was great for one half but had us tearing our hair out for the other; and Blackpool at home, which was great for one half but etc. Since we beat FC Gherdeina 16–0 the only really comprehensive performance has been the 3–0 win against Huddersfield, but even then we ran off the rails and smack bang into Darko Milanic, who soon found a way of exposing our frailties again.

Those frailties are still there, and they still exist as an asterisk that could check our enthusiasm if we let it. Silvestri is brilliant but he can’t handle coming off his line. Cook is the future but the here and now might be too soon. Tavares is a sensation but we’ve yet to see an end product. Antenucci keeps scoring but we don’t create enough in attack.

With Redfearn back and starting to make his presence felt, those little checks against our progress haven’t been swept away. But against Derby our frailties were, if anything, turned to our advantage.

If we can beat the top team in the division, we can beat anybody; and if we can do it with this team that is still learning its way either out of youth football or into English football, then we can afford to jump ahead a little and imagine what they might be capable of with a bit more experience, a bit more time under a coach who knows what he’s doing, and a few more results like this one.

It didn’t start too brightly; simple balls down the sides seemed to have Cooper and Bellusci flapping and spinning, and the last thing we needed was a game where indecision in defence put the onus on Silvestri to come out and win the ball. Derby looked like what they are: a team full of experience and quality who are top of the league. While Leeds looked like what they are: a green bunch short on self-confidence and organisation.

The half-a-game wins of recent weeks have suggested Leeds aren’t yet the strongest side mentally, and against Derby we didn’t look the strongest physically, either. As the tackles and the battles became more intense and the bookings stacked up, I wasn’t sure how Tavares, Cook, Mowatt and Bianchi would cope in the middle of the park. They were at risk of either being brushed aside, seriously injured, or sent off themselves for a reckless attempt to get their own challenge in; and given how the referee was performing, the last of those seemed most likely. We should probably pause for a moment and be thankful that Berardi wasn’t playing in this game.

As it turned out, having a bunch of soft lads in the middle of the park turned out to be so much the better for Leeds. As the game became more physical, the cards began to stack up; but while there was never really any danger of Tavares scything down Johnny Russell, Derby couldn’t help themselves and kept getting drawn more and more into a game of fouling that they couldn’t win. Even Will Hughes’ attempts to run the referee, more Michael Brown than the Messi he’s advertised as, began to fade as the second half drew on and the Leeds midfield began to dominate.

Without the physical presence for the full-blooded tackling contest Derby wanted, United’s young midfield instead concentrated on the sweetness of their football, and being a gang of naive waifs turned the game in their favour. Adryan Tavares span away from tackles, either with the ball with an outrageous trick, or without with an outrageous leap for the ref’s benefit. Lewis Cook has developed this lovely skill where, with a feather touch, he drills the ball to just where it should be and turns the whole opposition defence around.

Alex Mowatt is freewheeling just now, leaning left and right as he runs powerfully forward with the ball, and to call him a naive youngster actually does a disservice to the way he slowed the game down in the closing stages to take Leeds nearer to the final whistle. Bianchi, although he initially struggled with the rough turns the early stages were taking and might have been relieved when Rudy Austin took over at the base of the diamond, took his lead from the midfielders around him and played some calm and critical football.

Leeds’ young players were, simply, too good to be kicked, and while Mirco Antenucci won man of the match for his pair of goals, the most remarkable thing about them was where he scored them from, and how they were made. Mowatt was crucial to both, and both involved Leeds taking the ball to the byline and pulling it back so that Antenucci could finish from well inside the penalty area.

Building up with width and finishing from close range is something Leeds have barely done all season, preferring instead to pass in straight lines down the middle until Antenucci or Doukara shoot from the edge of the box, and to do it twice in one game almost suggests a change in approach rather than dumb luck. If it is a new approach, it brought the best out of Stephen Warnock, who took over the captaincy from Jason Pearce and was brilliant in defence and attack; and it means there is some hope yet for Billy Sharp, who has been looking on forlornly at players struggling for chances in a system that probably wouldn’t work for him, either.

How much hope there is for the rest of us is still a question, because those asterisks loom over Leeds as fiercely as the stars spinning around Derby’s head on Saturday night. But reality is for another day, because this is, at last, a game we should enjoy. Not the weirdness of the guests in the stands; or the speculation about Cellino’s £20m capital injection; or the worry that, in the games to come, we might not be able to keep this up, should be allowed to intrude.

December won’t be an easy month for Leeds United, but we go to Ipswich next; and as Noel Hunt managed to score the winner for them on Saturday, clearly anything can happen in Ipswich. If Leeds can beat the team at the top of the league, and if they can do it with such swagger, then perhaps anything can happen in Leeds, too. That’s an enjoyable feeling, quite apart from the result: the thought that anything can happen now.

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