Leeds failed to score for the first time this season as a stunning Leroy Lita strike gave Birmingham City victory on another disappointing day at Elland Road. Watched from the stands by potential future chairman David Haigh, Neil Warnock’s men lost their recent unbeaten streak by putting in a performance of occasional promise but infrequent cutting edge.
The 1-0 defeat brought a limp end to a week which promised much but ultimately delivered very little. Home fixtures against lowly Charlton and Birmingham had fans optimistic of a 6 point haul and an onslaught upon the play-off places. However, the single point gained leaves the Whites in mid-table and desperately in need of an upturn in fortunes.
Warnock made four changes from the side which put in an abject performance during Tuesday night’s bore score draw. Captain Lee Peltier returned to the team following injury and took up an unusual position in the centre of defence alongside Jason Pearce. To make way for Peltier, Tom Lees was pushed out to the right-back position and Sam Byram moved forwards into midfield. Out of the team, unsurprisingly, went Paul Green, Michael Brown and Luke Varney as Rodolph Austin and Michael Tonge returned. The other change saw Adam Drury replaced by Danny Pugh, who made a rare appearance at left-back.
That left the substitutes bench reflecting the colours of the Autumnal/Wintery weather, with Green, Brown, White and Gray all on standby.
The opening half was an even and goalless affair, though Birmingham looked more fluent in attack. Curtis Davies headed wide with the first real chance of the afternoon as the away team took the early initiative.
Leeds started slowly, but grew into the match as Austin and Norris began to make more of a mark in the centre of the field. A powerful long range strike from Austin was saved by the legs of England goalkeeper Jack Butland as the match approached the half-hour mark.
As usual, El Hadji Diouf was at the heart of everything good about Leeds in an attacking sense, consistently holding up the ball and attempting to create chances. The other positive force was Sam Byram, who at just 19 years of age is quickly establishing himself as the new Jonny Howson. Byram’s performances of late have been so assured and constructive that he is surely one of the first names on Warnock’s team-sheet each week and undoubtedly tops Chris Houghton’s January shopping list in East Anglia.
In spite of looking more confident and skilful, Birmingham created few chances of note before the break.
Leeds looked livelier during the second half and began to dominate. However, in spite of a lot of possession and thrust, the final ball was consistently lacking. The team looked like one in need of a creative player to unlock the stubborn defence of Lee Clark’s men. Crosses towards Luciano Becchio were persistently wayward and a procession of corners from Diouf or Tonge failed to beat the first man time and time again.
With Leeds on top, Warnock seemed to be delaying making any substitutions in the hope that the players on the field would find a way through sooner or later. That moment almost arrived on the seventy minute mark as a Byram cross was headed towards goal by Diouf, only for Butland to make an impressive one-handed save.
Butland’s save proved to be pivotal, as Birmingham struck the killer blow just minutes later. Striker Leroy Lita, on loan in the midlands from Swansea, collected the ball thirty yards from goal and hit a fierce strike past Paddy Kenny as the Leeds defence stood off. It was a goal worthy of winning any match and a hammer blow to Leeds who had looked more likely to break the deadlock in the second period.
Warnock responded by bringing on Aidan White and handing recent signing Ryan Hall his debut, but with only ten minutes to make an impression neither had the chance to change the match. In fact, Marlon King could have added a second Birmingham goal late on as he rattled the crossbar from distance. Three minutes of stoppage time could not inspire Leeds to snatch a late equaliser and a chorus of boos welcomed the final whistle.
As I was leaving the stadium, I overheard a man talking to a young boy. He said, “I’m sorry that this was your first ever Leeds match, but don’t worry, it gets a lot worse than this”.
Many thanks to those of you who entered my ‘predict the score’ competition on Twitter. However, nobody predicted an away win – so no competition winner this time. 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.