A dogged performance from a ten-man Leeds United ensured that master beat apprentice as Marcelo Bielsa’s team escaped the Ethiad with a shocking 2-1 victory for the travelling Yorkshire side.
Having all but confirmed their Premier League place for next season with their win against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United, Leeds United now faced the prospect of Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United back-to-back in a nightmarish April month.Marcelo Bielsa was forced into one change for the game with the on-loan Jack Harrison ineligible against his parent club. The English winger dropped from the squad and Helder Costa stepped into the breach on the Leeds United wing. There was a place on the bench for young Joe Gelhardt, recently the winner of the PL2 development leagues’ Player of the Month award, as Rodrigo’s injury woes saw him missing from the squad yet again.
Pep Guardiola was clearly occupied by the thought of City’s Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund and made seven changes. In came Nathan Ake, Raheem Sterling and, former Bielsa player, Benjamin Mendy amongst others.
The reverse fixture was a blockbuster between these two sides and is recognized as one of the games of the season by pundits and neutrals alike. That game saw Manchester City dominate the opening exchanges and tale a deserved lead through Raheem Sterling. Guardiola’s side had the best of possession early on here as well but the first half-chance of the game went to Leeds. Raphinha had been played in down the right by a great pass and tried to play the ball into the path of the arriving Patrick Bamford. The pass was behind Leeds’ top scorer though and the opportunity passed Bamford by.
The game was a case of nearly-balls early on. Manchester City almost went ahead when Ferran Torres’ mis-hit shot went into the path of Benjamin Mendy who converted wide – though he was offside regardless. Oleksander Zinchenko, playing in midfield rather than his usual left-back role, then tried to play Gabriel Jesus into the box with a volleyed lay-off, only for Diego Llorente to intervene. Then came Leeds again. Tyler Roberts found himself on the right of the area and put an excellent cross in towards the foot of Patrick Bamford. The slightest of touches from John Stones was enough to deflect the ball past the outreached foot of the arriving attacker.
Raheem Sterling then tested Illan Meslier with a low shot towards the front post before the best chance of the game fell to Ferran Torres. A corner, the bane of Leeds United’s life this season, was swung in and fell to the feet of the Spanish winger, a volley was launched goalwards but an excellent block from Leeds captain Liam Cooper ensured that the score remained level.
Torres again had an opportunity from a set piece after the 30-minute mark. A Zinchenko free-kick met the head of the Spaniard but the effort ballooned over the bar. Manchester City were having the better of it now though and Raheem Sterling had shown his desire to get on the scoresheet with a number of ranged, curling attempts which had failed to trouble Leeds’ goalkeeper. The England forward would have been positively licking his lips then when Fernandinho presented him with a perfect lay-off inside the area, Sterling hasn’t scored though since City’s game against Arsenal and failed to convert again, putting it well-wide of the post.
Leeds United had been in the game up until this point but had failed to dominate possession or even muster a shot on-target, one should never rule out a Bielsa side though and it was his side that took the lead through a brilliant move. Helder Costa brought down a lofted ball forward and got the better of Joao Cancelo before finding Patrick Bamford on the edge. The striker feigned a shot and laid off Stuart Dallas who sent a brilliantly precise shot off one post and into the back of the net. With the game nearing half-time it felt as though it would Leeds going in comfortable, having defended excellently. Then disaster struck.
Liam Cooper has been fairly praised this season for a number of excellently times crunching tackles that see the ball won fairly and their opponents on the floor. It looked as though the Leeds captain had pulled out another one when he won the ball from Gabriel Jesus. The first contact had been clearly with the ball and the defender had pulled his legs back towards his body immediately. There was contact on Jesus though and a free-kick was given, that perhaps wouldn’t have been a few years ago. A yellow card followed and the game was set to continue before VAR David Coote stepped in and suggested a red card. Ndre Marriner had a look at the slow-motion replays and agreed. Off went one of Leeds’ best performers in the opening exchanges under very controversial circumstances.
Patrick Bamford made way for Pascal Struijk as Leeds looked to build on their solid defensive performance, with Tyler Roberts staying on to take the mantle of a hybrid attacking midfielder/striker.
It was half-time not long after and a team talk of vital importance for Marcelo Bielsa as his ten-man Leeds side looked to protect a vulnerable 1-0 lead.
The second half went predictably. Leeds had sacrificed an attacker for a defender to stay competitive and so the high-press was compromised. Leeds United would have to do something that they haven’t had to do since Marcelo Bielsa arrived in Yorkshire and sit deep, desperately clinging on to their advantage.
Manchester City hammered on the door, again and again, Zinchenko, Sterling and Stones all went close but Leeds defended excellently. On came Robin Koch for Tyler Roberts as the away side dug their heels in. The 70-minute mark came and went. The introduction of the free-scoring Ilkay Gundogan represented the ambition of Pep Guardiola as his team searched desperately for an equalizer.
Only five minutes later though, Manchester City were level. Bernardo Silva received the ball in the area and gave Ferran Torres the freedom of the Leeds area. The summer signing got his goal, helped by Illan Meslier slipping as the shot came in, and the teams were level. Phil Foden had been thrown into the game for Benjamin Mendy and Pep Guardiola’s team went looking for the winner.
Again though, Leeds United cannot be ruled out and had an unbelievable chance when a perfect Kalvin Phillips pass gave Rapinha a one-on-one with Ederson. The Brazilian winger has been brilliant this season and if there was one Leeds player that the fans would want to be presented such an opportunity it would be the winger. He failed to even get a shot off though and with that, Leeds’ chances of an unlikely victory seemed to fade away.
Enter Stuart Dallas…
The Northern-Irish utility man has been arguably Leeds United’s best player this season. Playing at left-back, central midfield, even at centre-back once, he has been key to Leeds’ success and, when he found himself, shoulder-to-shoulder with a magnificent John Stones and facing off with one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. How Dallas kept his head is completely beyond this writer but he cooly slotted the ball through the legs of Ederson and sent Leeds United crashing into the top half of the Premier League table.
It was a really different performance from Leeds United, being forced to dig in and limit their opponents to such a high quantity of long-range shots and low-quality chances having only ten men on the pitch is exceptional. Stuart Dallas got two great goals but Kalvin Phillips was the standout, digging in for the team he loves and almost single-handedly containing the talent of Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, John Stones and Ferran Torres whenever he was asked to shows clearly his ability at this level. Liverpool next for Leeds, I’ll say it again…
They couldn’t, could they?