newcastle united 1-1 leeds united: all about leedsBack
After beating Preston North End, Leeds United were hot, Roofe was hot, Hernandez was hot, and by kick-off, after wins for Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday, the play-off race was hot. Between post-season football and not, Leeds now lacked a comfortable gap.
Newcastle’s major lack was Dwight Gayle, their Chris Wood, but his potential replacements, without many appearances, still carried goals. Rather than Daryl Murphy, Rafael Benitez opted for Aleksandar Mitrovic: 820 minutes, four goals, three assists. Behind him was Ayoze Pérez (six goals, five assists) and a team record of scoring at St James’ Park in their nine previous games.
Mitrovic started dangerously, for his own health, sticking his nut on Pontus Jansson as they challenged for a long clearance; he’d paid for it by half-time. Then Jonjo Shelvey gave Pablo Hernandez a boot to the side of the head, drawing a bandage-worth of blood and also making his way into Jansson’s book.
Leeds had the first big chance. After a meandering free-kick, the ball was given to Alfonso Pedraza at the edge of the penalty area, and in keeping with his increasingly impressive form he took a crack, and in keeping with his luck he cracked the crossbar; from a standing start, Kemar Roofe tried to head the rebound over Karl Darlow, but the keeper leapt to his feet to save. Roofe had all the plaudits last week, but Pedraza, disguised as a taller Stuart Dallas, was as effective against Preston, and good again against Newcastle; all he lacks is results, and a better-than-Sacko understanding with Wood.
Newcastle’s response came from Matt Ritchie, who took a short corner to Shelvey and then ran unsuspected behind Wood into the penalty area to strike at Robert Green, as the ball was scrambled around. After the ball went away for a while it came back, and Liam Bridcutt, who as I’ve discussed ad nauseum loves to play in his own penalty area, span through a double Hernandez as Leeds withstood Newcastle’s first pressure.
Newcastle were employing Shelvey deep, as they love to do, looking for Ritchie on the wing, but for the first twenty minutes it looked like a luxury; Shelvey might look like Lothar Matthäus against Wigan or Rotherham, but with Hernandez, Roofe and Pedraza criss-crossing around him, Wood following him, and Bridcutt and Kalvin Phillips in front of him, he was trapped inside a maze of his own making, producing few crystals.
Leeds couldn’t keep that up everywhere. Shelvey, hoping the pushing and pulling on the penalty spot would distract Green, aimed a corner at the near post, but Green spotted the trick. As Newcastle had more possession, Ritchie came off the left wing via a one-two with Mitrovic, and shot over the bar. Later, Ritchie got inside the box to cross, Luke Ayling dived head first to block a shot by Hayden, Jansson dived to block a shot by Ritchie. Shelvey wasn’t being allowed to pull any strings, but Newcastle had other players in their orchestra for Leeds to think about; their endeavours were met with stiff defending that created corners, Shelvey’s best chance to cause Leeds problems, and few opportunities for Leeds to counter attack.
When Leeds did counter it ended with Pedraza again, firing at but missing the back post, also missing Roofe who was close, after good work by Phillips to keep a move going on the edge of Newcastle’s area. Despite Leeds’ necessary defence, Phillips was getting refreshingly far forward when there was a chance to attack; as seen against Preston, as extra midfielder around the opposition area lets Hernandez, Roofe and Pedraza try different things from different places.
Hernandez tried something different by committing a first touch of torment and giving Gouffran the opportunity to rattle the bottom of Green’s post; from the rebound Jansson threw his head at Ritchie’s shot to send it over the bar, and from the corner Green pulled off a fantastic reflex save to deny Mbemba, and from the next corner Bridcutt stopped a dangerous close range effort from Perez, and from the next one Jansson headed clear after a teammate flicked the corner on at the front post. And then the Leeds players breathed a deep sigh of relief, looked forward to half-time, and back on a half well played.
Within a minute of the second half starting, Bartley had slid to block a pull-back from Hayden, and Phillips had given away a foul on the edge of the penalty area; Green dived to save the free-kick from Ritchie, and it was as if Leeds had enjoyed the first half so much they wanted Newcastle to bring it on for more of the same. Jansson pushed himself closer to the precipice by handballing in their with Mitrovic, bringing on booking number fourteen.
Then Bartley got one; after arguing with Mitrovic for interrupting the telling off he was giving Bridcutt and Phillips, he blocked the striker on the run, and the referee booked him on the say-so of his frantically flagging assistant. All of this did, at least, put a brake on the momentum with which Newcastle had started the half. Not for long, though. From a corner, Ayling put a brake on Mbemba at the back post, but the assistant didn’t see anything work asking the referee for a penalty about. Then Jansson had to save Ayling, after his weak header to Green was flicked over Green by Mitrovic; Jansson got to the ball before Mitrovic could head it over the line.
Monk’s selection itch was scratched after an hour, Hadi Sacko replacing Pedraza, who hadn’t had a chance to repeat his dangerous moments from the first half. All the battles were with Mitrovic, while downfield Shelvey was beginning to play, and Ritchie throughout was performing like a lower league maestro, probably destined to evaporate at high levels, but revelling in the journey.
The goal was going to come, vital for Newcastle’s journey but potentially deadly for Leeds United’s. When it finally did, it was given to Jamal Lascelles; Mitrovic got away from all the heat of Jansson and Bartley and headed a centre across the goal, where Lascelles scrambled above all and headed marginally over the line.
If you ignored the goal, then Leeds’ defending was a joy to watch. Jansson blocked a cross from Ritchie that was destined for Mitrovic, then from six yards out Perez volleyed Shelvey’s cross, and Green reacted immediately to put the ball over the bar. Green stopped Perez again near the end, punching a cross off his head after Newcastle countered.
They’d countered because Leeds had been attacking in the closing stages. Charlie Taylor had replaced Berardi and headed for the wing, while Doukara replaced Bridcutt, and headed sort of to the wing as well; it was he who gave the ball away to let Newcastle counter, and on other occasions. With a goal advantage Newcastle had become cautious, letting Leeds play a little, but killing time at corners so that any idea of an equaliser was a mirage.
Until Chris Wood came out of the desert, sloshing brimming buckets of Fanta for everybody all around his head. Leeds kept chipping the ball into the box, and under pressure for the first time, Newcastle forgot to mark Wood. Hernandez woke from an away day torpor, drove past a player, and made a forward incision. Wide left, Roofe span and clipped the ball towards the front post and Wood leapt, twisted, volleyed it into the top corner, looking somehow relaxed all the while. Garry Monk didn’t look relaxed; he was punching the air on the touchline. I’d like to think it was the moment; part of me also thinks it was the progress made by the group. Either way, he was happy, and we were happy.
Rob Green had more touches than Chris Wood, and the game belonged to both of them, watching and waiting at either end of the pitch, and coming alive when it mattered: frequently, in Green’s case, eventually, in Wood’s case, importantly, in both cases. This game had felt in advance like a free swing, but Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham had made feel unrealistic as kick-off approached. After full-time, their Friday didn’t feel like it mattered, and neither did Newcastle’s impending promotion. For ninety-four minutes this game was all Newcastle’s, but one moment made it all about Leeds.
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