Leeds United 2 Norwich City 2
Leeds will feel aggrieved that they did not pick up maximum points from a fantastic encounter at a freezing Elland Road on Saturday.
With overnight snow falling, there was the possibility of a postponement, but thanks once again to the efforts of the ground staff, referee Neil Swarbrick was happy to pass the surface as playable after a morning pitch inspection.
The match pitted 6th against 3rd, with Norwich having won many admirers for their football this season. However there was no doubt that they met their match in Leeds United, and the Canaries, despite the comments of their manager, can feel themselves very fortunate to have escaped with a point.
The match was a clash of two footballing philosophies, Leeds United with their expansive game, using wide players to stretch the opposition, and Norwich’s tight intricate passing and prompting inspired by Wes Hoolahan, with the long ball option of big men Holt and Wilbraham.
Leeds started the better, Gradel and Snodgrass causing their usual problems for the opposition. Their incessant forward progress completely cancelled out Norwich’s only option for width, the full backs Drury and Russell Martin being completely occupied defensively. United showed their attacking intent with a good early shot from Howson. Then Becchio went even closer, his header hitting the post, the ball rebounding gratefully into the arms of the Norwich keeper.
United deservedly opened the scoring on 16 minutes, as another cross from Gradel found Becchio at the backpost, putting enough pressure on Drury to force the ball home. Whether the Argentinean got the final touch is open to debate, but frankly who cares.
Leeds were in total control, and should have had a second when Howson, again revelling in the free role behind Becchio had an effort saved by Ruddy, the rebound falling to the Leeds skipper who crashed it against the bar.
Norwich by now were clueless, and with Leeds pressing all the time, all the Canaries could do was to pass it along the back line, one spell of nine or ten such passes prompting ironic Ole’s from the Leeds fans.
Leeds had totally dominated the opening 45 minutes, but unfortunately the first half lasted 46. The first time Leeds didn’t press the Norwich back four in their own half, they showed what they were about, a cross to Holt and his header fell to Henri Lansbury to drive the ball past Schmeichel at his near post. It was a shattering blow, to see all that hard work undone by one lapse in concentration.
The second half saw Leeds immediately get back on to the front foot, Howson again driving forward from midfield to shoot just wide. However against the run of play Norwich took the lead, George McCartney caught out of position and as Hoolahan bore down on goal, Schmeichel was too quickly off his line, allowing the Norwich playmaker to lift the ball goal wards. Eric Lichaj got back to attempt to clear the ball, but rather than hooking away with his right foot, appeared to attempt to poke away with his left, only succeeding in lifting the ball into the roof of the net.
Earlier in the season United may have folded, but they rolled up their sleeves and kept going. Neil Kilkenny, who had a mightily impressive game pulling the strings in midfield, was sacrificed for the South African goal machine, Davide Somma with 15 minutes to go.
Within seconds, Somma had done the trick, latching on to a Becchio flick on, and with his first touch volleying the ball from the edge of the box into the bottom corner, sending the vast majority of the 31000 inside Elland Road wild with delight.
The Leeds fans roared their team forward, desperate for the winner which would take Leeds above the visitors into third spot. But with time ebbing away, the game settled down a little, as both sides looked to hold on to the point.
With Becchio tiring, Billy Paynter was thrown on, and he came so close to grabbing the goal that he, the team and the fans desperately craved. Linking well on the edge of the box with Somma, his shot was squirmed agonisingly past the post by a relieved Ruddy in the Norwich goal. Seconds later the final whistle blew and ended a fantastic game of football which was a credit to Championship football.
Leeds as a team were magnificent, and in my opinion were by far the better side. However, one or two individuals were not at their best.
Schmeichel was strong again, but will surely be regretting the rush of blood at racing out to try to block the second goal, but he did command his area and produced a couple of superb saves to deny Fox from distance.
Eric Lichaj has been a fantastic acquisition to cover Connolly at right back, and Grayson should really look into extending his loan. His defensive work, bar his attempted goal line clearance, was excellent, and his pace is phenomenal. One run in particular will stand out, winning the ball in his own half, strongly running before feeding Snodgrass, then putting on the afterburners to fly past the Scotsman in support.
On the other flank George McCartney was as impressive as usual going forward, but was badly caught out for Norwich’s second goal. The central defensive pair of Bruce and O’Brien dealt admirably with Holt and Wilbraham; Holt in particular, bar one effort of the post, was pretty impotent and spent more time berating his team mates and the officials than actually playing.
Neil Kilkenny, as mentioned was superb in midfield, even winning a couple of tackles. His general passing is excellent, only guilty of a poor final ball whenever he looked for a penetrating pass. This is an area which would lift him from a good to great player. Alongside him Bradley Johnson was happy to do the donkey work, a role he didn’t appear happy to do earlier in the season. He is obviously not going to sign a deal, until he knows what division we are going to be in, a game of contract chicken both parties are willing to play.
Jonny Howson was back to his best yesterday, the free role suits him far better than the traditional central midfield role. He was very unfortunate not to score, his performance fully deserving of a goal.
The wide men had a mixed day for me. Gradel was his usual busy self, impressing more for his defensive efforts than his attacking play. Snoddy on the other flank, once again had his full back on toast, but his final ball was invariably disappointing. Had his crossing been better I have no doubt that we would have been victorious. However, he did track back brilliantly and maybe fatigue was a factor in his performance.
Becchio again had another of those days. He worked hard, but was hardly a constant threat. However with a goal and an assist, you can’t really ask a lot more, it just feels like he isn’t the same old Becchio we know and love.
Somma again came on and did his job, and his hold up play is improving. However with every game massively important there is no time to experiment, and for me, Super sub is the best way to use him. His pace and awareness against tired defenders is a fantastic weapon for SG.
All in all, we would probably have settled for a point if pushed before the game. It was a must not lose rather than a must win game. However the same cannot be said for Barnsley on Tuesday night, 3 points there are vital before Saturday’s trip into Europe and the clash with Swansea City. We don’t seem to do wins in Wales, but Saturday could be the time for that poor run to end. If we do, then promotion will no longer be a dream, it will be achievable.