At 3:30, Leeds were down and out of this match, being completely outplayed by a classy and expensive Blackburn Rovers side. By 5:00, Elland Road was rueing an agonising injury time miss from El Hadji Diouf as the Whites settled for a thrilling 3-3 draw.
Following the comfortable midweek victory over Oxford United, Neil Warnock reverted back to the team who defeated Peterborough in the last league match. Luciano Becchio and Ross McCormack were reinstated in attack, whilst Luke Varney and David Norris returned in midfield. On paper, Leeds have a strong first eleven, but yet another damp squib of a transfer deadline day left the home bench failing to inspire and the squad as lightweight as ever.
In contrast, the forever under pressure Steve Kean was able to name an intimidating team full of experience at the highest level including Morten Gamst Pedersen, Nuno Gomes and former England international Danny Murphy. Perhaps most intimidating of all was the inclusion of Jordan Rhodes, the league’s most expensive and sought after marksman. At £8million, Rhodes price tag easily dwarfed that of the entire Leeds squad and served as a reminder of the gulf in financial clout between a recent Premier League team with parachute payments and a club seemingly heading for further financial meltdown if the glacial-paced takeover fails to materialise.
The financial chasm on show soon transitioned into a chasm of quality, skill and talent as the away side dominated the opening exchanges. Paddy Kenny was forced into a number of early saves as Leeds failed to gain a grip on the match. In spite of rampant recent performances, Rodolph Austin was struggling to make any impression in the midfield as he and David Norris were left chasing shadows.
Particularly vulnerable was the Leeds’ right flank, where Captain Lee Peltier and Blackburn-old-boy El Hadji Diouf were frequently the embarrassed victims of ruthless left-wing attacks. It was no surprise, therefore, when Markus Olsson broke free down the left and swept into the penalty area before dispatching the first goal conceded by Leeds at home this season. Both Peltier and Diouf looked horribly out of position as the move unfolded, and Kenny was left red-faced as the ball was lashed under him.
Minutes later, Blackburn struck a second. Again the attack came down the left hand side before the ball was cut across the 18 yard line for Nuno Gomes to clip into the far side of the net. Heads dropped in the stands. Blackburn’s dominance and superiority was so vast that murmurings of a heavy thrashing spread like Chinese whispers.
Frustration grew both on and off the pitch as the Whites began to concede petulant fouls in their desperation to create even a single chance in the first half. The fans’ attention alternated between deriding the referee and steadfastly chanting the “Bates Out” mantra.
But this is football. And, as we all know, it is the most unpredictable of games. As they say, it only takes a moment of magic or a scrambled fluke to change a match. El Hadji Diouf’s 43rd minute lifeline goal was certainly one of the latter category, prodding the ball over the line following a woeful display of goalkeeping from ex-Leeds hero Paul Robinson.
Suddenly, Leeds were alive. Diouf and Varney had swapped flanks, patching up the right-wing defensive frailties. Attacks began to flow. Moments after pulling Leeds back into the match, Diouf could have equalised as he headed goalwards a McCormack free-kick, only for Robinson to tip acrobatically over the crossbar.
Half time arrived and brought a chorus of scorn for the officials, but there was a new found optimism in the air.
Warnock’s men began the second half as they finished the first. Blackburn’s flowing football dissolved under the crushing wave of Leeds pressure.
On 57 minutes, Adam Drury sent the ball upfield. Luciano Becchio jumped, but neither he nor his marker got a touch, allowing the ball to run through to Ross McCormack on the edge of the penalty area. From there McCormack unleashed a sublime half-volley across Robinson to emphatically snatch an equaliser which had seemed so out of reach after half an hour. It was McCormack’s first league goal of the season, and he will have been very satisfied to outshine his Scottish compatriot Rhodes, who was being adeptly shackled by Jason Pearce.
There would only be one winner from here. Elland Road sensed a third goal was on the cards and so it proved. Just 10 minutes after the equaliser, Leeds completed a frankly staggering comeback as some comical Blackburn defending sent the ball into the path of Luciano Becchio. The Argentinean’s header beat Robinson at his near post, and left Leeds dreaming of a third victory in four games.
“Bates Out” soon evolved into ironic chants of “Kean Out” as the gloom of the first half turned into delirious euphoria. Jason Pearce hit the back of the net to make it 4-2, only for the referee to disallow the goal with one of several dubious decisions which would leave Neil Warnock enraged post-match.
Leeds pressed for a fourth, but it was Blackburn who would strike a hammer blow. A questionably awarded free kick found its way to Ruben Rochina, who deftly back-heeled past Paddy Kenny to deflate the home support.
Up went the fourth official’s board to reveal 5 minutes of stoppage time. Blackburn attacked, threatening to well and truly rain on the parade. But the last chance of a thrilling match would fall to El Hadji Diouf with seconds remaining. As the ball fell fortuitously to his feet in the area, the stage was set to become a hero and win over his remaining doubters by snatching a stunning winner against his former employers. Diouf swung his left foot, a defender slid in, Robinson flailed, and the ball cleared the crossbar. Today was not to have a final dramatic twist.
Despite the feeling of deflation at the final whistle, this was an excellent match and a very good result against possibly the strongest team in the division. From a position of inevitable defeat, Leeds showed all the fight, spirit and winning mentality that you would expect of a Neil Warnock side. And long may it continue.
Many thanks to those of you who entered my ‘predict the score’ competition on Twitter. The closest guess came from Eddy Briggs (@eddybriggs) who correctly predicted a 3-3 draw and a goal from Becchio. Send your predictions (including goalscorers) for the next home match to me @Matt_K_Burton for the chance to be mentioned in the match report.