That’s that out of the way

Premier League bound Leeds United overwhelmed an occasionally game but ultimately outclassed Huddersfield Town in front of the largest Elland Road crowd of the season (now a standard feature when both clubs are in the same division despite it apparently being of more consequence to the away side).

While their supporters will only accept that promotion, and probably the title, is heading their way when the mathematics confirm it, the inevitable wobble has already passed, potential usurpers look thoroughly unconvincing and the culmination of 2 years under the stewardship of a high quality, if flawed, manager was on full display in a one sided derby.

Resisting the temptation to play defensive wing backs in favour of the same line up which has delivered 2 crucial and impressive home wins, Danny Cowley rather signalled that he considered, along with much of the support, that the game was of less importance than next week’s encounter with Wigan.

The decision was soon exposed as potentially reckless as Leeds took the lead with a goal of no little beauty. Breaking up play in the middle, a swift break down the left allowed Harrison to float an inch perfect ball for the marauding Ayling to smash past Lössl. Grant’s non intervention was a factor, but takes nothing away from a quality delivery and finish which immediately rendered Town’s already mountainous task positively vertiginous.

To their credit, and in an increasingly testy confrontation, Town valiantly attempted to gain a foothold in midfield and had spells of possession which suggested hopes were not entirely forlorn. However, a single attempt by Chalobah which almost sneaked through the legs of Leeds’ young keeper was the sum result of Town’s period of parity and the hosts were able to overcome the absence of Phillips, the fulcrum of their midfield, with an exceptionally solid back four who easily snuffed out the visitors’ intent.

Towards the end of a quite entertaining first half, Leeds should have doubled their lead as they established a grip on the game they were never to relinquish.
Ayling, a massive beneficiary of Bielsa and a far better player than the one Town faced in our own promotion year, repaid his debt to Harrison with an excellent cross which was met perfectly by the Manchester City loanee on the volley but his strike curled just side of the far post. Bamford also had a decent chance which he screwed wide.

Town managed to hold on until half time, but the turning of the screw seemed ominous, despite a reasonable effort against a considerably more coherent unit.

Sadly, the second half confirmed the foreboding. With a natural ability to squeeze space without the ball and expand it in possession, the confidence of the home side in the inevitability of a win underpinned an impressive display which left Town grasping for air on too many occasions. 

O’Brien and Chalobah could not be faulted for effort in the middle, but with Smith-Rowe’s talents almost entirely blunted by the relentless pressure applied by combinations of home players, a back four under immense pressure for much of the half and the sheer range of attacking variation, the visitors barely had chance to venture forward.

Just over 5 minutes in, Leeds doubled their lead. Bamford, a constant menace to Town’s over worked central defenders, drew a desperate foul by Schindler with Hernandez delivering the subsequent free kick on to the head of Ben White. Lössl, who came to Town’s aid several times, saved the attempt but could only push the ball out to Bamford for a chance even he couldn’t spurn.

2 down, in the face of a hugely confident team and a raucous, jubilant crowd, Town rarely suggested that a comeback was possible. A Smith-Rowe effort which was more collected than saved, shortly before his frustrating afternoon ended in substitution and a decent but easily saved effort by O’Brien was all the visitors could muster. A late penalty appeal, inexplicably turned down, could have potentially added an undeserved gloss to a disappointing afternoon, but there were few consolations to be taken from a comprehensive defeat.

That the gulf between the sides was not really reflected in the final score was down to some dogged defending under seige and Leeds’ familiar Achilles Heel. Their pulsating attacking play tended to suffer from hesitant finishing at times but there were more than enough near misses – a superb run and shot from Harrison which hit the post was a particular highlight – to suggest that their potency is never far away which will see them through, avoiding a repeat of last year’s implosion.

For Town, the game always felt like an unwelcome distraction before far more important games. It was even possible to admire, perhaps through clenched teeth, some excellent football by arch rivals knowing that the improbability of gaining points rendered the contest, if not meaningless, less than vital.

Wishes Granted

Huddersfield Town’s new found attacking intent, predicated on being able to field and organise a group of players infinitely more talented and hungrier than those on show before the January activity, belatedly crushed an occasionally pretty Charlton Athletic side with the softest of underbellies.

6 points in the space of a few days has not banished the threat of relegation, and sterner tests are on the horizon, but the despair following the poor display in South Wales has been swiftly vanquished.

The performance wasn’t perfect and it seemed odd to be walking away from a 4-0 win with the unnerving feeling that a 10 minute spell early in the second half when Charlton’s possession appeared to have developed some purpose could, and perhaps should, have seen the Addicks level.

A dominant first half had yielded just one goal, Grant pouncing on a defensive error which Charlton’s glaring hubris signalled was coming long before it did, as excellent approach play down both flanks was largely wasted by players not taking the opportunity to shoot often enough. Willock, who displayed raw talent with inevitable naivety in equal measure, ballooned and sliced one while a sublime touch to bring down a dropping ball by Smith-Rowe saw the Arsenal loanee shot well saved with Grant hitting the post from a very tight angle.

Simpson, who had a very solid game both offensively and defensively, delivered a sumptuous cross for Grant who couldn’t connect properly with his head; possibly distracted by the defender jumping in front of him.

Charlton occasionally tried to gain some control through possession but Lössl was troubled just once and made a fairly routine save at his near post. On the whole, the indefatigable O’Brien and excellent Chalobah pulled the strings in the middle and with multiple options ahead of them and to the sides, Town just lacked the precision and incisiveness in dangerous areas to put the Londoners away before the break. A knock to Smith-Rowe reduced his effectiveness though his class was barely concealed.

The half had been satisfying if unfulfilled. On the front foot for the vast majority of the time, the interplay down each flank was striking with Toffolo’s surges forward creating constant overloads and threat. On the other side, Willock and Simpson were a little less potent but nevertheless the necessary pragmatism of the Cowleys tenure to date seems to be being replaced with a sense of adventure which bodes well for the future if the unthinkable is avoided.

A two goal cushion would not have been unjust but the newly dynamic formation will surely add a lethal edge in time.

Town started the second half still the more likely to add to their lead and Smith-Rowe’s final notable contribution before succumbing to injury was a goal bound effort bravely blocked by a Charlton defender in the opening exchanges. Chalobah also saw a good effort cannon off a red shirt and victory looked assured.

However, the Addicks, with the added energy provided by substitute Williams, began to claw themselves back in to a game in which they had looked doomed. Playing with more menace and pushing the home side back for the first time, a 10 minute spell produced 2 very presentable chances and several scares for the hosts.

Toffolo, otherwise excellent, was completely bamboozled down the right and Oshilaja picked out Pearce in the box who waste fully fired over. It was a warning against complacency and O’Brien and Chalobah stepped up to regain control and release the tension.

It may be a little unfair to reflect on the absence of Hogg and Kachunga but it is hardly deniable that Chalobah’s mature and pretty flawless display provides greater thrust than the more prosaic veteran and Willock’s pace and ability to beat an opponent replacing the German stalwart’s admirable but largely stultifying work rate. A threshold appears to have been crossed with players passing and moving forward with intent rather than sitting fearfully. They no longer appear to be waiting permission from opponents to attack.

The January recruitment has also transformed the bench, providing the Cowleys with options, ability and experience. Pritchard, missing for months, may not have given much since his arrival but his talent is unquestionable. Coming on for Smith-Rowe, the diminutive play maker was instrumental to the second, killer, goal, releasing Toffolo with a superb ball down the left after clever passing with O’Brien. The ex-Lincoln man delivered a perfect cross on to the chest of Mounié, another one of the bench, to score with his first touch.
Charlton were finished and with a revitalised Bacuna replacing the fading Willock, their troubles were far from over. As the game drifted towards an inevitable home victory, the final substitute added much needed gloss to the score line and goal difference.

Playing a wall pass off Mounié, the erratic but hugely talented youngster sat a Charlton defender on the floor with the slightest of feints then fed Grant in behind for his brace.

With injury time almost up, Bacuna then carried the ball upfield. With little company to pass to, he created a pocket of space and then lashed a tremendous 30 yard shot beyond Charlton’s keeper for a 4th. 

It was possibly a winning margin more befitting of Tuesday night than this particular game, but the confidence and joy which was palpable at the end as the old salute was revived in front of the south stand should stand the squad in good stead for the challenges ahead; not least next Saturday on enemy territory.
While throwing caution to the wind at Elland Road is unlikely to end well, Town simply cannot entirely abandon the style which has brought 6 hugely valuable points.

A week is a long time in Championship football.