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burton albion 2-1 leeds united: the drain

burton albion 2-1 leeds united: the drain

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The cheerleaders completed the picture. Leeds United only know goal music as an enemy sound, and long may that be the case, but Tom Hark means a goal conceded. Cheerleaders? That’s something else. But as they wiggled and shook in the corner of the Pirelli Stadium, they were stamping their dainty feet all over Leeds United’s grave.

That was only Burton’s first goal, but there was no real need for either their second, or United’s hopeless consolation goal. There wasn’t much point in playing the game at all. The further expectation veered from recent reality — the more thousands signed up to watch this “vital match” beamed back at Elland Road, despite what we saw at Elland Road last weekend — the stronger the likelihood that all anyone in Yorkshire would get from this game was a familiar sinking feeling and Tom Hark ringing in their ears; black, gold and pom-poms decorating our season’s funeral.

The season isn’t over. There are two games left and, this being the Championship, plenty of potential twists left over the next fortnight. For Leeds United to qualify for the play-offs, though, they would have to take advantage of slip-ups from other teams. I can imagine other teams slipping up, but I can no longer imagine Leeds United taking advantage.

The hope felt dead long before Burton Albion scored, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. This has been the most exciting, positive season in years; mingled with the genuine possibility of promotion has been consistent pleasure, even through the tough times. Against Burton Leeds started brightly enough, with Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira reunited in midfield, Souleymane Doukara and Charlie Taylor reunited down the left, and clear instructions to all to attack. Leeds scored, Chris Wood heading in after a corner, but the goal was disallowed for mysterious reasons; apart from that, Leeds were busy in Burton’s box, Phillips and Vieira getting ahead of Pablo Hernandez, Kemar Roofe and Doukara pushing forward.

Leeds didn’t create many chances, though, and ran out of ideas alarmingly early. Once the ideas had gone, so did the technique. First touch control was uniformly terrible, and first touch was vital, because no Leeds player had the confidence to play a one touch pass. The time taken to get the ball under control was time Burton used to put players under pressure, making it harder for Leeds to pass, forcing more passes astray. Watching one Leeds player trying to pass to another was agony.

Burton didn’t have to do much except let Leeds play themselves out of the game. Their first goal came from a wayward pass from Hadi Sacko that missed Hernandez by a mile. It could have been a pass from anybody to anybody, it could have missed by a mile or a millimetre, the important thing was Burton had the ball, and with United’s midfield otherwise engaged, it was easy for Marvin Sordell to collect a pass, turn past Kyle Bartley, and shoot past Robert Green.

Where previously we’ve seen rallying cries and heroics from Pontus Jansson and the crew, here Leeds United looked like they didn’t know what was happening. Tom Hark and cheerleaders; a disorienting combination. That can be the only explanation for the second goal. Within two minutes, a long goal kick was missed by Bartley and Vieira and reached Sordell, and he gave the ball to Michael Kightly, bursting from midfield. Hernandez came part of the way with him, Taylor came all the way, Kightly scored anyway.

Bartley scored three minutes later, but the last ten minutes were a fiasco. Wood, Hernandez, Sacko, Pedraza and Roofe were all on the pitch, but Leeds could hardly muster a forward pass with any point to it. I feel sorry for Garry Monk at times like this, amid an intermittent desire to throttle him, because with Sacko and Pedraza on, he couldn’t come up with a third change — Marcus Antonsson? Stuart Dallas? Gaetano Berardi, and push Taylor forward? — and so stood with his arms folded, watching grimly, learning some harsh lessons that, in the long run, I hope we’ll benefit from.

In the short term what he has to do is get this team to the end of the season. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but the lack of belief is resounding. The arguments after the game were between those who think we should be grateful for finishing so high as seventh, and those who think that to have been so close to the play-offs and have blown it is unforgivable.

It was a rare voice that suggested that, at the start of the season, or even at the start of September, we’d never have thought that, with two games to go, we’d have such a good chance as we still have of making the play-offs. That’s the true concern. Not that we’ve been in such a good position and blown it, but that confidence has drained away so quickly, when there’s still a prize there to be fought for.

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