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birmingham city 1-2 leeds united: home discomfort

birmingham city 1-2 leeds united: home discomfort

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A sparse crowd, on a Champions League night, when there are more interesting things happening everywhere.

A joyless stadium, no air in the place, muted applause for the players coming on to the pitch, reluctant yells echoing as they churn and toil.

A first half blown altogether, the team booed off at half-time; a better effort in the second half, but ultimately, defeated. The fans trudge away into the dark streets of a provincial city, wishing they’d stayed in with the football on TV instead, muttering forlornly about having to come back for the weekend’s match.

If those are the conditions required for Leeds United to play well and win, why the hell haven’t Leeds played better and won more at Elland Road this season?

Maybe it took a meeting with a mirror image for Leeds to snap out of the slumberous sequence since those three post-Brighton wins; three defeats and a draw for Leeds dully reflected Birmingham’s three defeats, two draws and one win in recent form, and St Andrews was about as welcoming to its home heroes as Elland Road is these days. The people of Birmingham, like the people of Leeds, aren’t fired up by the football being played in their city these days. Two negatives, I guess, make a positive.

Being more positive makes a positive, too. Starting 4-4-2 might make it difficult to accommodate Lewis Cook, but it gives an inaccurate and error prone side some margin for error in attack; crosses to Chris Wood don’t have to be inch perfect anymore (although even when they are, but hey, that was Saturday) because, with Mirco Antenucci up front with him, there are second chances to be had. Attacking doesn’t become a desperate battle against diminishing returns, but a brave endeavour, with promise.

Stuart Dallas was the most inspired to get involved, making a short run from centre midfield to the edge of the Birmingham box where Antenucci gave him the ball and where he could move the ball to his right foot, open his body and shoot low, simply, and not particularly hard, into the bottom corner of the net.

Accuracy was more important than power for the finish, and scoring was better than conceding, which sounds redundant but, y’know, you’ve seen Leeds play. The hardest part about the match at Burnley on Sunday was conceding a goal within a minute that gave Burnley something to defend; scoring a goal at Birmingham gave Leeds something to feel good about. It was all it took, it was enough, to suggest Leeds United could win the game.

It must have done something to Stuart Dallas. His first was simplicity from the edge of the box; his second was audacity. As an example of the confidence running through the team, giddy at leading, Marco Silvestri launched a goal kick not into the stands, but down the middle of the park; Chris Wood didn’t let the ball drop onto his shoulder to uselessness, but leapt, hung, and flicked a header on to Dallas, his legs spinning as he zipped in from the left wing. With his right leg he poked the ball the bouncing ball up into the air, like a magician raising a crystal ball with a purple cloth, and as it dropped, he shook his body like a wet dog trying to sidestep a towel and swung his right leg again. This wasn’t a Yeboah-style scream-fest; this was a poke, a dig, made (it seemed) with an eye on the goalkeeper’s position: well out of his goal. Two-nil.

If that goal had been scored at Elland Road I would have been livid, because it would have been scored against Leeds; we’ve conceded often enough when artless wallops have found unmarked attackers, who have made our defence and goalkeeper look like poorly arranged potplants in a garden centre conservatory. So we can enjoy it and be grateful to it and be glad of it being scored in the right end, and that it led — eventually — to a win.

Obviously the win didn’t follow the two goals by smooth right; there was almost instant concession of a goal to Birmingham, who reacted first when Silvestri parried an awkward freekick, which led to an inevitable loss of momentum as all those goals against — ten more than we’ve scored — that led to all those defeats — three more than we’ve run — came rushing back to the muscle memory and cramped the style. Steve Evans’ perennial focus on dominant periods of play (even ones he’s imagined) after defeats means he ought to be magnanimous enough to credit Birmingham for their final forty minutes; he won’t, though.

Even a red card for Alex Mowatt was brought into play, and the ultimate wild abandon: a substitute appearance for Giuseppe Bellusci, booed onto the field and then taking up a place in midfield. As attempts at game management go, bringing on the twice (in a week) game-destroying least-popular (give or take a Cellino or two) man in West Yorkshire to play the last few minutes of the game (his favourites) out of position (Bellusci is not, repeat not, not not not a midfielder); well, it’s a style of management that Evans’ president would probably approve of, because it involved chucking perfectly good fruit at a wall.

But it worked. Or, at least, it didn’t blow up in our faces, which is good going for Leeds United given recent weeks. This whole match was good going for United, in fact; a win, two good goals, a rotten run ended. Edit those clips of Dallas’s goals, and quickly, this club has season tickets to sell!

I’m serious, by the way. Season ticket news was promised in April, but you could hardly promote the opportunity to spend £500 on Leeds United on the back of the Rotherham game. Or the QPR game. Or the Burnley game, no matter how nice people acted about that. It’s Reading then Wolves then Hull next, and we’ve seen before how United like to take glimmers of hopeful form, and chuck them into a Huddersfield-shaped bin. Plus the first two of those games are at home, and we’ve seen how that just worked out for Birmingham, and one of them is against an ex-Leeds manager, and we’ve seen how that’s worked out recently for Leeds.

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