Ta­ble-top­ping Leeds will ‘try to win the games one by one’, says prag­matic head coach Bielsa

AS­TON VILLA 2 LEEDS UNITED 3 CHAM­PI­ONSHIP

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD SUT­CLIFFE

HEAD COACH Marcelo Bielsa last night re­fused to get car­ried away by Leeds United’s re­turn to the Cham­pi­onship sum­mit as the sea­son reached the half­way stage.

A stun­ning fight­back saw the El­land Road club come from two goals down at half-time to beat As­ton Villa at Villa Park. Ke­mar Roofe net­ted a dra­matic ‘95th- minute’ win­ner to en­sure Leeds leapfrogged Nor­wich City at the top of the ta­ble.

Asked about the sig­nif­i­cance of be­ing top at Christ­mas, Bielsa said: “We still have to play the same amount of games we just played. You know that in football you can’t make pro­vi­sions or an­tic­i­pate things. That is why we will try to win the games one by one when they come.”

Af­ter fall­ing be­hind to first- half goals from Tammy Abra­ham and for­mer Barns­ley mid­fielder Conor Houri­hane, United needed a spark on the restart.

It came via the in­tro­duc­tion of teenager Jack Clarke at the in­ter­val, the York-born winger net­ting his maiden goal to start a fight­back that gath­ered fur­ther pace when Pon­tus Jans­son headed in an equaliser just af­ter the hour.

“He was very im­por­tant be­cause he scored the first goal,” said Bielsa when asked about young­ster Clarke, who has just eight ap­pear­ances from the bench to his name in se­nior football. And he gave en­thu­si­asm to the team. We al­ways felt he had the ca­pac­ity to make the dif­fer­ence.

“When I started to look at his skills I did not imag­ine that he could make the dif­fer­ence as he made the dif­fer­ence now.

“As with ev­ery young player I think he can im­prove a lot, but at the same time he has to con­firm his level and show what he is ca­pa­ble of.

“We know that the fea­ture of a big player is to main­tain the same level of per­for­mance.”

Pressed on whether Clarke was ready for his first start, Bielsa added: “He is a young player and we have to man­age his time of play. That is my opin­ion.

“If we build an im­age which is an ex­ag­ger­ated one of his ca­pac­i­ties in­stead of help­ing him we will be hurt­ing him.”

United’s sixth straight win came on an af­ter­noon when Barry Dou­glas had to pull out dur­ing the warm-up through ill­ness. This saw Leif Davis, one of six Academy play­ers on the bench, handed his de­but.

Pa­trick Bam­ford, only just back from a three-month ab­sence through in­jury, was also miss­ing af­ter land­ing awk­wardly on his knee in train­ing on Satur­day. Bielsa says the striker may re­turn against Black­burn Rovers on Box­ing Day, as could Dou­glas and Tyler Roberts.

THE PRIZED num­ber one slot in the Cham­pi­onship this Christ­mas be­longs to Leeds United.

Ke­mar Roofe’s dra­matic stop­page-time win­ner, com­ing at the end of a pul­sat­ing se­cond half that had be­gun with Marcelo Bielsa’s side trail­ing As­ton Villa by two goals, means the York­shire club top the fes­tive charts for the first time since 2009.

As with that ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful at­tempt to es­cape League One un­der Si­mon Grayson, United’s push for a Pre­mier League re­turn feels to be build­ing gen­uine mo­men­tum as the year draws to a close.

No mat­ter what hur­dles are placed in this side’s way – be it los­ing Barry Dou­glas to ill­ness dur­ing the warm-up or Pa­trick Barm­ford suf­fer­ing a knee in­jury in train­ing on the eve of the trip to Villa Park – Leeds merely dust them­selves down and work out a way to win any­way.

It is the mark of true cham­pi­ons and a trait that sug­gests head coach Bielsa’s men have ev­ery chance of con­tin­u­ing the re­cent tra­di­tion of the team top­ping the Cham­pi­onship on Christ­mas Day be­ing in the top flight the fol­low­ing Au­gust.

Not since Wat­ford in 2007 has a team en­joy­ing the view from the sum­mit at this stage of the fes­tive sea­son failed to go on and clinch au­to­matic pro­mo­tion from the se­cond tier.

Bielsa, of course, is tak­ing noth­ing for granted as the vastly ex­pe­ri­enced head coach made clear in the wake of Roofe’s win­ner.

“I hope we are not the ex­cep­tion to this rule you men­tion,” said the Ar­gen­tinian. “But all rules do have ex­cep­tions.“

Pri­vately, how­ever, Bielsa must surely recog­nise that this Leeds squad pos­sess not only the char­ac­ter, but also the per­son­nel re­quired to pros­per in this most com­pet­i­tive of di­vi­sions.

Pon­tus Jans­son, shoul­der­ing much of the de­fen­sive bur­den in the ab­sence of in­jured cap­tain Liam Cooper, was im­mense against a Villa side who boast such an abun­dance of at­tack­ing tal­ent that their man­ager Dean Smith was able to bring £12m sign­ing Scott Hogan off the bench.

Be­fore Roofe’s late, late win­ner – and with play rag­ing from end to end with the scores level at 2-2 – the Swede pulled off three colos­sal blocks in a row deep in­side United ter­ri­tory.

He also stood tall as Villa pumped cross af­ter cross into the vis­i­tors’ penalty area, invit­ing com­par­isons with John Terry, watch­ing from the home dugout, in his pomp.

Ezg­jan Alioski, em­ployed on the right flank, also shone even when Villa were on top, while the age­less Pablo Her­nan­dez drove Leeds for­ward re­lent­lessly in the se­cond half.

And then there was Jack Clarke. The 18-year-old may be yet to start a game for Leeds, Bielsa pre­fer­ring to in­stead use the York-born wide­man from the bench.

But af­ter be­ing brought on at half-time for the fourth time this sea­son Clarke proved to be the at­tack­ing spark the vis­i­tors had so badly needed.

His first se­nior goal was a joy to be­hold, Clarke col­lect­ing a pass from Her­nan­dez out wide be­fore dart­ing past for­mer Hull City man Ahmed El­mo­hamady and drilling a low shot be­yond Or­jan Ny­land.

Clarke had his first se­nior goal and Leeds a much-needed life­line af­ter fall­ing 2-0 be­hind in­side the open­ing 17 min­utes.

En­ter­pris­ing play on the part of the hosts, helped by a smidgin of slack de­fend­ing, had al­lowed Villa to take an early grip on pro­ceed­ings in front of a sell-out 41,411 crowd.

Tammy Abra­ham be­gan and ended the fifth minute move that broke the dead­lock, the Chelsea loa­nee’s ac­com­plished fin­ish com­ing a few sec­onds af­ter his clever flick had found Conor Houri­hane.

Bai­ley Pea­cock-Far­rell had lit­tle chance of keep­ing out Abra­ham’s opener, but he should have done bet­ter with Villa’s se­cond af­ter get­ting a hand to Houri­hane’s curled ef­fort.

He was, though, far from on his own in the cul­pa­bil­ity stakes with Kalvin Phillips and Adam For­shaw al­low­ing Jonathan Kodija to spin his way along the edge of the United area be­fore rolling a pass to Houri­hane 25 yards out.

Last sea­son Leeds would more than likely have folded meekly when two goals be­hind at the home of a big pro­mo­tion ri­val.

But United are made of sterner stuff un­der Bielsa and Clarke’s maiden goal was fol­lowed by Jans­son head­ing the vis­i­tors level from a Her­nan­dez cor­ner just af­ter the hour.

Both sides then had chances with Ma­teusz Klich and Alioski bring­ing smart saves from Ny­land, and Pea­cock-Far­rell had to be alert from a Villa cor­ner at the other end af­ter Yan­nick Bo­lasie had waste­fully fired over.

That seemed to be that un­til a poor de­fen­sive header from El­mo­hamady landed at the feet of Roofe. A Christ­mas cracker was re­quired and that is just what the Wal­sall-born for­ward de­liv­ered to send Leeds back to the sum­mit for the fes­tive sea­son.

Top of the tree, on top of their game and, on this show­ing, a team that is go­ing to take some top­pling.

PIC­TURES: TONY JOHN­SON

LATE SURGE: Team-mates find it dif­fi­cult to keep up with Ke­mar Roofe af­ter his dra­matic stop­page-time win­ner for Leeds United who had trailed by two goals to As­ton Villa at Villa Park. In­set, Jack Clarke gets the come­back un­der­way with his maiden se­nior goal.

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