Leeds face test of nerve as promotion looms

Leeds United are increasingly in contention for a return to the Premier League, following a key 3-1 win at Blackburn and with five matches left. (Files/AFP)
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Updated 07 July 2020

Leeds face test of nerve as promotion looms

  • Marcelo Bielsa’s side look odds-on to secure the place among English football’s elite

LONDON: After 16 years in the wilderness, Leeds United are on the brink of an eagerly awaited return to the Premier League — as long as they can hold their nerve with the finish line in sight.

A 3-1 win at Blackburn on Saturday moved Leeds a step closer to the promised land from the long purgatory of the lower leagues.

Marcelo Bielsa's side sit one point clear at the top of the Championship heading into their last five matches.

With third-placed Brentford six points behind, Leeds look odds-on to secure the place among English football's elite that their legion of fanatical fans used to regard as their birthright.

But Leeds were in a similar position last season and squandered a chance for automatic promotion before imploding in the playoffs.

When Leeds beat Sheffield Wednesday on April 13, 2019, a capacity crowd at Elland Road serenaded their jubilant team as if promotion had been secured.

Just 15 days later, after losses to Wigan and Brentford and a mad-cap draw against Villa — in which Bielsa told his team to deliberately let their opponents score following United's controversial opener — ended the Leeds top two challenge.

Leeds lost their nerve and Derby took full advantage in the playoff semifinal second leg, winning 4-2 to leave the Elland Road faithful in tears.

From the ashes of that bitter evening, Bielsa has dragged Leeds back into promotion contention.

But, with last season's collapse in mind, Leeds fans might have been alarmed to hear Bielsa admit he is feeling the strain of the run-in.

"Yes," Bielsa said when asked if he felt anxious during the Blackburn game.

"Every match in this period is very important. If we get distracted we will pay for that so we need to keep focused in every match."

With English football being played behind closed doors for the rest of the season amid the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps Leeds will benefit from playing in silence, rather than in front of their anxious fans.

"I'd love to be there more than anything. But it's such a nervous time and I do think that could impact the players," Leeds season-ticket holder Simon Sanders told AFP.

"Nothing feels quite right with this virus and the way the world has changed but if we make it the party will go on for weeks."

Three of Leeds' remaining games will be played in the empty stands of Elland Road against struggling trio Stoke, Barnsley and Charlton.

Win those games and taken a point from one of their two away games at Swansea and Derby and Leeds will be assured of promotion.

It would be a moment to savor after such a long period in the shadows.

Champions of England in 1969 and 1974 under Don Revie, then in 1992 when Howard Wilkinson called the shots, Leeds have a rich history.

But since being relegated from the top tier in 2004, Leeds have stumbled from financial disaster off the pitch to despair on it.

Describing the club's ascent to the heady heights of the Champions League in the early 2000s, former chairman Peter Ridsdale claimed he had "lived the dream."

Their subsequent fall was a never-ending nightmare that hit its lowest ebb in 2007 when Leeds went into administration and were relegated to the third tier for the first time.

No wonder the much-travelled Bielsa is so beloved after just two years in charge.

The former Argentina, Lazio, Marseille and Bilbao boss has turned the tide at a tortured club infamously labelled the 'Damned United' by novelist David Peace and forever remembered as 'Dirty Leeds' in the minds of fans who saw their no-holds-barred style in the Revie era.

Now Leeds' Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani is embracing that checkered past in a bid to secure promotion at last.

"For Leeds, we have a history of being 'Dirty Leeds' and we actually channel that," Radrizzani told FIFA's Professional Football Journal.

"All of our boys are willing to fight for the shirt every week and having that character is important to being a Leeds player.

"I want to help Leeds return to the level our history and fans deserve."


Al-Hilal win Riyadh derby to edge closer to 16th title win

Updated 43 min 53 sec ago

Al-Hilal win Riyadh derby to edge closer to 16th title win

  • In their first game after a five-month break because of the pandemic, the league leaders enjoyed a comfortable 4-1 victory over their closest rivals

RIYADH: Al-Hilal took a major step toward regaining the Saudi Professional League (SPL) on Wednesday as they secured a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Al-Nassr in a top-of-the-table clash at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.

The league leaders went into the Riyadh derby six points clear of their city rivals, knowing that a win would strike a decisive blow in the title race. A record 16th championship now looks inevitable, barring an unforeseen — and unlikely — collapse.

The SPL, like all other sporting events in the Kingdom, was put on hold on March 14 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The competition resumed on Tuesday with five matches, and Al-Hilal’s triumph the following night completed the season’s 23rd round of games. Seven matches are now all that separate Al-Hilal from another title. Games are being played behind closed doors, with no spectators.

Al-Nassr, who were unbeaten in four games against their opponents, started off on the front foot, adopting a high-pressure approach that seemed to be disrupting Al-Hilal’s build-up play. Nevertheless, it was Al-Hilal who broke the deadlock with a goal on 35 minutes, as Sebastian Giovinco delivered a firm finish after collecting Mohammed Al-Breik’s low cross.

With the last move of the half, however, Al-Nassr equalized through a fierce strike by Sultan Al-Ghanam. Goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf got a hand to the ball but could not prevent it crashing into the roof of the net.

Nine minutes after the break, Al-Hilal went ahead for a second time when Bafétimbi Gomis dispatched a penalty past Brad Jones, celebrating the goal in his unique, crawling style. This time, the lead would not be relinquished.

Five minutes later, Carlos Eduardo looked to have settled the match when he grabbed Al-Hilal’s third after some questionable defending.

Al-Nassr briefly improved after falling two behind, however, and on 66 minutes Nordin Amrabat was presented with a golden opportunity to cut the deficit in half after skipping through the Al-Hilal defense, only for his shot to be deflected wide for a corner.

With just over 10 minutes left, a superb cross by Salem Al-Dawsari was expertly dispatched by Gomis to put the result beyond any doubt and assure Al-Hilal of a nine-point lead in the SPL.

“After a long break you must come back strongly,” Al-Dawsari said. “We have high expectations, regardless of whether we had won or lost the match. As you saw today we achieved the win and we still have bigger ambitions to go for the title.”

Al-Dawsari played a part in two of the goals and stood out as one of the fittest-looking players after the lengthy hiatus.

“I’m a professional player and during the break I was expected to look after myself,” he said. “The league was not over. So you have to set your own fitness schedule.

“Yes, the break was long but our coaching staff were watching us and our training was ongoing throughout. After the long disruption we had a duty to entertain our fans, especially in a derby match. Today we put on a performance worthy of Al-Hilal. It’s sad to play big matches like this without fans but hopefully they will be back soon.”

Al-Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulaihi echoed these comments, praising his team-mates for their superior fitness and confidence.

“Our preparation meant we came back strongly after the break,” he said. “We were confident we would put on good performance and that showed in the result.”

He acknowledged, however, that a few defensive lapses could have cost the league leaders.

“We’ve been working recently on our defending,” he added. “If you notice, Al-Nassr’s few dangerous attacks came from our mistakes. Hopefully we can avoid that in the future.”

While Al-Bulaihi refused to be drawn on whether he believes the title is now all but secured, Al-Hilal fans will already be planning their celebrations after such a comprehensive victory over their closest challengers.

Earlier in the day, Al-Shabab enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 victory over fourth-placed Al-Wehda to end the day in seventh spot, while a first-half goal was enough to secure an away win for ninth-placed Ettifaq against bottom-of-the-table Al-Adalah.