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.