The chances of Leeds United, managed by Garry Monk, replacing Swansea City, the club that sacked him 12 months ago, in the Premier League next season cannot be discounted.
Only the sharp eyes of the assistant referee gave Villa a late penalty that preserved their unbeaten home record under Steve Bruce here, and even then Leeds should have won the game, Hadi Sacko lifting the ball over the Villa goalkeeper, Mark Bunn, only to see it bounce down off the underside of the bar.
Having watched his side produce a vibrant second-half performance after a goalless and relatively insipid first period, Monk could only bemoan their failure to kill the game off after their impressive Swedish centre-half Pontus Jansson had put them ahead with a header from a corner. Jansson, a 25-year-old on season-long loan from Torino, nearly made it two in as many minutes with a volley which bounced off the bar, while Sacko missed several opportunities to either score himself or put the ball on a plate for others, before and after Jonathan Kodjia had scored the penalty rightly awarded after Liam Cooper handled the ball.
“They started well, but we grew into the game and in the second half we were aggressive, played front-foot football and delivered a fantastic performance,” said Monk. “In the first 30 minutes of the second half we had really good chances and should have put it to bed. But it shows how far we have come, to be disappointed leaving with a point from a club with such a strong home record. My team take massive credit from tonight.”
So they do: the question is whether they can maintain their challenge. Having seen his team pick up 25 points from the last 33 available (after just four points from his first six games in charge), Monk spoke about building on that foundation. “I knew from the day I came in here it would take time, there was nothing in place, and we’re still not where we want to be, but we’re seeing a very young group grow,” he said. They have an option to buy Jansson after he makes one more appearance, reportedly for £3.5m, and assuming the owner, Massimo Cellino, can lay his hands on such a sum – which given his record cannot be taken as read – they would be crazy not to exercise it.
Steve Bruce, who felt Villa had “edged” the first half, admitted they had been second best thereafter. “You can’t allow a free header from a corner, and we had a really dodgy period for 20 to 25 minutes after that, but we stuck at it against the best Leeds team I’ve seen for a number of years and we might even have pinched it, though that would have been unfair. The penalty was the right decision, and we’re still unbeaten [at home], but we still have a lot to do. I’m under no illusions about that.”
Leeds almost handed Villa a lead within two minutes of the start, and would surely have done so had Jansson not been alert when Kalvin Phillips’s appalling pass presented Kodjia with the ball around ten yards from goal. The defender got in a tackle just as Kodjia got his shot away, deflecting the ball wide.
Remarkably, Phillips did it again a few minutes later. This time his sloppy pass handed possession to Kodjia outside the penalty area and he must have been hugely relieved to see his goalkeeper Rob Green dive to his left to palm a deflected shot behind.
Once Leeds settled, however, the sides and formations cancelled each other out, at least until Jack Grealish was replaced early in the second half. Bruce sent on the former Leeds striker Ross McCormack in the hope the immutable law would prove just that, and Villa immediately looked more threatening going forward. But so too, with more room in midfield, did Leeds. An outswinging corner from the right picked out the run of Jansson, whose firm header squeezed through Bunn’s attempted save.
From another corner the Swede controlled a loose ball on the edge of the penalty area and volleyed it past Bunn, only to see it bounce off the top of the bar. Monk, trying to force home the advantage, sent on the creative Pablo Hernández (another loanee), and had Sacko pulled the ball across goal to the unmarked Chris Wood, instead of trying to dink it past Bunn, they would have made the game safe.
As it was, the linesman’s sharp eyes, and the few minutes of mayhem that followed at both ends, ensured both sets of spectators left the ground with reasons for satisfaction.
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