A Stephen Warnock penalty handed Leeds a narrow victory over despised adversaries Millwall, sparing the blushes of Ross McCormack who had earlier failed to take his own spot-kick opportunity. The win leaves the Whites firmly in the hunt for the play-offs having taken seven points from a possible nine.
Even more pleasing for manager Neil Warnock will be a third consecutive clean sheet. A stable back four of Sam Byram, Lee Peltier, Tom Lees and Neil’s namesake Stephen are proving to be a formidable quartet, not to mention the good form of Paddy Kenny between the sticks.
Leeds’ season will most likely be decided over the next two matches. Daunting away trips to Leicester and Crystal Palace (both top-six teams) threaten to permanently derail the upward trajectory. Six points from those two matches would be huge; three points would be a very positive outcome. Either way, Leeds would have to do something they haven’t done since an early December trip to Huddersfield and win away from Elland Road.
Fortunately, today’s match was in LS11 where Leeds have (in stark contrast to the 2011/12 season) developed a fortress. Only table-topping Cardiff have taken anything from Elland Road over recent months, and even that was a match which Leeds were unfortunate to lose.
For the third consecutive game, an unchanged line-up was announced meaning that Leeds’ front six would consist of Paul Green, Michael Tonge, David Norris, Luke Varney, Steve Morison and McCormack.
An even opening to the match saw little action, aside from when a chink in the home defence let in James Henry. His shot beat Kenny, but rebounded to safety via the post.
Leeds were playing some good stuff, passing the ball around and trying to create openings. The match burst into life shortly before the half hour mark as good play sent Sam Byram on a surging run into the penalty area where he was clinically scythed down. Up stepped McCormack, but his powerful low penalty was saved brilliantly by David Forde who tipped the ball onto the upright.
As the dust was still settling from the penalty disappointment, a wicked cross grazed the head of Varney and found the opposite post to which McCormack had hit seconds earlier. Millwall were leading a charmed life and Leeds should have been ahead.
Further dismay was to come for Leeds’ diminutive Scotsman. An accurate low cross from the impressive Varney found McCormack in space just ten yards from goal. But, not quite finding his balance, the resulting shot was easily saved by Forde. Leeds should have been two goals up and supporters pondered if those moments of misfortune would cost the team dearly.
The remainder of the first half saw Kenny pull off an excellent low save to deny John Marquis, before the man-mountain of Danny Shittu did well to block a low shot from Varney.
The second half began in unspectacular fashion, with chances at a premium. Leeds had possession, but Millwall had men behind the ball. In the final third, cross after cross was floated into the grateful hands of Forde (who must have been suitably satisfied with his day’s work at that point).
Michael Tonge raised Leeds from their stupor with two good efforts in as many minutes. The first flashed narrowly beyond the far post; the second was saved well by Forde.
Former Leeds player Andy Keogh entered the fray from the visiting bench and immediately caused problems for Lee Peltier, getting beyond the Leeds captain before instigating a goalmouth scramble in which Paul Green did well to avert the danger.
With less than twenty minutes remaining, the Whites were staring down the barrel of second consecutive goalless draw before McCormack was upended and referee Jones found himself pointing to the spot for the second time. Perhaps concerned that his confidence had been knocked, McCormack relinquished spot-kick responsibility and up stepped January signing Stephen Warnock. Leeds’ new left-back made no mistake and hammered the ball home to take the points.
Varney could have doubled the advantage late on, but saw his effort well saved. Leeds’ number eleven was later stretchered from the field, and will have three days to recover if the manager is to stick with an unchanged side in midweek.
Overall, this was not a stunning victory, but Leeds were confident, resolute and played some positive attacking football. The real test now lies in the next two games. Make or break.
Many thanks to those of you who entered my ‘predict the score’ competition on Twitter. The best guesses came from Tom Holgate (@TomHog1994) and Rob Prince (@OnTheRob) who both foresaw a 1-0 win. Nobody anticipated the goal scorer correctly… though there was one peculiar prediction of a David Somma strike.