Lacking the injured, the suspended and the indolent, Town’s task against one of the best 3 sides in the division looked entirely forlorn before kick off with just 9 of the starting eleven reasonably considered to be first team squad members and a bench resembling the front row of a school photo.
The visitors were also disrupted by injury with their driving force, Phillips, unavailable and the late withdrawal of Cooper foiling Bielsa’s original plan to play White in central midfield but their problems were comparatively mundane and eminently manageable as battle hardened Championship players came in to a team brimming with confidence and proven quality.
Having revived the club following a disastrous start to the season with a string of results which dragged the Terriers above the drop zone, a combination of unfortunate circumstances and the reemergence of the toxicity which seems to be the only legacy of 2 top flight seasons has brought a halt to the encouraging momentum the Cowleys developed.
Against this background, the disappointment of a derby defeat was massively tempered by a performance of no little credibility against opponents who seem unlikely to make the same mistakes as last season, though the hope is always there.
A typically feisty first half was hugely encouraging for the home side whose tenacity and aggression largely thwarted Leeds’ flow and the territorial advantage achieved was testament to the Cowleys’ ability to meet big challenges in very difficult circumstances. They know what they want and need to reinvigorate a club with deeply embedded and barely concealed problems which will continue to fester until they are in a position to make the changes in January and the summer.
There will come a time when the opposition worries about us rather than having to adopt containment strategies as the first and only option.
With an unfamiliar starting eleven against an established and confident side, Town rarely allowed Leeds to emphasise their technical superiority and disrupted their normal flow and comfort in possession with an energy and commitment entirely absent in a dreadful, yet revealing, first half at Ashton Gate.
Lead by Hogg, who was actually as culpable as many in that Bristol debacle, the hosts harried Leeds in to errors and disabused them of the perfectly understandable notion that they were in for an easy afternoon.
However, the first opportunity fell to the visitors and a clever corner by Hernandez found an unmarked Klich whose first time effort struck the outside of the post. There were other openings for them in the area which were wasted by rushed shots but the alarms were generally low key.
Establishing superiority in the middle of the park turned the contest more in the home side’s favour as the half progressed with a Bacuna and Hogg dominating the weakest area of their White Rose rivals.
Mounié, making a rare start in an attempt by the Cowleys to play longer and over the passing ability of the opposition had a good first half slightly tainted by too many examples of his weakness on the ground and he met an excellent Bacuna free kick only to be thwarted by alleged racist Casilla who tipped over.
A brave challenge with Casilla from a long clearance by Grabara saw Mounié’s challenge only partially cleared to Grant who was only foiled by an excellent header preventing the ball reaching the top corner.
Mounié also met a Grant corner (simultaneously with the back of a colleague’s head) which didn’t really trouble the keeper but illustrated a little improvement in the quality of corners which have thus far been woeful.
If Leeds’ counters were rare in number, they did seem to carry more incisive threat than Town’s less sophisticated approach and in Hernandez, our neighbours possess that extra quality and guile which makes all the difference in a league with few stand out teams. Even though the Spaniard was largely contained, he still managed to pull a few strings and one first time ball to Klich in the first half who was first thwarted by Grabara and then an offside flag highlighted how he only needed to escape the shackles once to orchestrate threat.
For Town, Bacuna continues to show great promise on the ball and one shimmering run caused panic in the Leeds’ defence though their resilience swamped the attempt. Unfortunately, at the other end, the Dutchman’s over abundance of confidence can lead to trouble and he jeopardised Town’s promising first half when an attempt to wriggle out of a bad position ended with a chance, blazed over by the rather disappointing Costa.
For all the positives of a good first half, which could easily be upgraded to excellent given the debilitating circumstances, containing the natural ability of this annoyingly well coached Leeds team (by a remarkably admirable manager who has broken the mould of a string of laughable idiots usually employed at Elland Road) for a full 90 minutes was always a massive ask for a cobbled together team with a bench which Danny Cowley was unlikely to describe as sexy again.
Minutes in to the second half, Town’s plans were upended by a goal of undeniable quality. Mounié cleared a relatively poor Hernandez corner at the near post only for Alioski to volley home first time with an unstoppable strike.
The dynamic of the game changed at that moment. Town had to push further forward and with more risk of play being opened up to try to earn an equaliser against a stingy defence with a goals against record which should secure automatic promotion at the second time of asking if they can avoid Bielsa’s unusual curse of blowing up at the business end of the season.
For a good 15 minutes, Leeds dominated possession and but for good saves by Grabara, slightly off radar passing in the final third and some desperate defending they could have put the game well out of reach before the hour mark.
Then came Town’s big chance. Komora, who played well down the left before giving way towards the end, floated an excellent cross on to the head of Kachunga in the six yard box only for Casilla – who will be a big miss for Leeds if found guilty of the alleged offence – to make a remarkable save at close range to, yet again, leave the hard working Town man to rue his failure to convert.
With just over 10 minutes to go, Leeds sealed the points they deserved with a much improved second half performance built on that early strike as they stretched Town once again with a swift break down the left. This time, the ball in by Harrison was undefendable and Hernandez arrived at the back post to finish.
To their credit, Town made the final stages competitive despite facing pretty inevitable defeat and Grant should have reduced the arrears from yet another promisingly good set piece, heading wide when he should’ve hit the target. A through ball to Mounié could also have delivered a deserved consolation but the big man’s monumental goal drought persisted as his stretch made poor contact.
Most home supporters were philosophical about a defeat which didn’t carry the pain normally associated with this fixture; Leeds are clearly miles ahead of a team still carrying out surgery in the aftermath of significant, if self inflicted, problems of the past two years and despite having to field a substantially disrupted and unfamiliar line up, managed to compete for long stretches of a hugely challenging encounter.
Leeds will be pleased to maintain their form despite only sporadically reaching the standards Bielsa has instilled. In fact, the only residual unpalatable traits of a team which used to have a plethora of them were the antics of the hugely annoying Bamford who was, incredibly, spared a booking despite continually offending by an indulgent referee. That he then contributed to yet another Hogg booking with his prone histrionics simply increased the vilification he rightly received.
Alioski’s assault on Schindler shouldn’t be ignored either but, overall, there is a lot to grudgingly admire in our rivals which will hopefully be assuaged by the schadenfreude accompanying a late season collapse. But it won’t happen this time.
In the bigger scheme of things, Town now go on the road to two struggling teams. Charlton’s injury problems resemble our own and Wigan’s form is woeful. The opportunity for revival before the possibility of a transformative January lay directly ahead.