OK, LEEDS… never been a better time to play them ; confident Boro are tight at the back and flying up front and with Kike looking as hot as El Nino; Leeds in their annual disarray with boardroom mayhem, an influx of unknown players and a non-league boss. Who supports Boro. What could possibly go wrong?
BORO suffered a self-inflicted wound at Elland Road as Billy Sharp stabbed home at the death. The striker – making his debut for Leeds after signing from Southampton in midweek – pounced unmarked on the loose ball and slotted home from close range after Boro’s Spanish shot-stopper keeper Tomas Meijas fumbled a low shot from Tonge.
For many Boro fans the goal two minutes from time would have had a familiar feel to it: Sharp has now netted for four different teams against them. Their old Nemesis Sharp had already scored against Boro for Southampton, Doncaster and Sheffield United and was booked for removing his shirt and over-celebrating as he added Leeds to that list.
Typical Boro. And at Leeds too. It was a moment that deflated a pre-match bubble of optimism. That was a cruel blow for Boro who had dominated for long spells in the televised clash and had what looked a good Albert Adomah goal ruled out in the first half. The winger’s acrobatic overhead kick on 25 minutes had been disallowed by infamous “ghost goal” referee Stuart Attwell for “a dangerous high foot” – defender Warnock had stooped to put his head in bravely in an attempt to clear – when almost everyone in the ground, including his linesman, thought it had counted.
Boro players and fans were celbrating and the lino was dashing back to the half-way line for kick-off when Attwell finally decided five or six seconds later that it had been a foul.
That twist of fate decisively swung the tide in a full blooded Championship crunch that Boro had bossed up to that point. After that Boro’s side started to lose some of their swagger and stopped passing and probing crisply as they gradually got dragged into Leeds more direct and scrappy long ball style and then into a toe-to-toe street fight before being mugged with the game fizzling out into a draw.
Boro had plenty of the ball but struggled to find the final pass to get behind Leeds and lacked some fizz in and around the box. Kike twice lobbed over the bar and there were a couple of balls that skidded into the box that threatened but Leadbitter dragged a shot wide and Ayala stretched and shinned one straight at the keeper. And Boro had no Plan B and few options to change it. Bamford and Baker may have helped or the other mooted marksman and wide left player. But for now Boro are limited in approach.
Had Albert’s goal been allowed to stand with Boro in the ascendency they would probably have gone on to win comfortably and gone top of the table leaving Leeds in disarray and in deeper crisis. On such moments do games turn.
And it wasn’t just the Sharp strike that prompted deja vu. Anyone who saw Meijas in action at Hillsborough last term will have seen some familiar flaws at Elland Road. At Sheffield Wednesday he flapped at crosses, edged tentatively into crowds and dropped the ball and fumbled a couple of routine shoots, although it must be said that was his debut for Boro and his first game in the hurly-burly of the Championship.
As at Leeds that was a game where Boro had bossed and were robbed of good goal – Jacob Butterfield’s ball over the line – only to lose after a fumble.
Meijas’ display can most generously be described as patchy. He twice had to charge into sliding tackles to tidy up in his box after defensive mistakes left him exposed (although for the second one his own poor touch from a strongly hit Abella back-pass was poor) and he held a Bianchi free-kick well in the first half. But the hesitation on high balls and fumbles were still there. And while English football may well have more aerial balls it is not as if Spanish football has outlawed the corner. Before Leeds scored, Meijas came and flapped and missed it leaving Sharp to glance a header wide.
Already the lynch mob are gathering. He’s not as good as Dimi. he’s not as good as Steele. What is Karanka thinking of? He’s thrown certain promotion away! Who-ah. Firstly, it is only his third competitive game for Boro. That’s a bit early to write anyone off. And secondly Karanka has proved shrewd with signings so far and isn’t the kind to risk everything on one player. Let’s cut Meijas some slack and trust the gaffer to make the right choices to turn out a winning side.
On the debutants, Damia Abella started well with a couple of good tackles, a few good balls up the flank and surging run or two but he faded. Boro completed the move early on Friday but asked us to keep it under wraps as sneakio Karanka wanted to keep Leeds guessing tactically. As Abella explained afterwards in cartoon heavily accented but passable English, he has only played two 45 minute sessions for Osasuna and is nowhere near match fit. But he looks like he ticks a lot of boxes and will get fitter and stronger and click into the system in the weeks to come.
And Adam Clayton laughed off the Leeds boos and jeers and introduced himself with two crunching tackles and a searching ball forward for Kike to chase before settling into a good rhythm of chasing and scrapping. He’ll get better too.
Yes it feels a bit flat right now but we have seen plenty of positives so far this season. It is still a work in progress, it is still being tweaked – the gaffer wasn’t happy – and remember, there are still players to come.
Here’s the Gazette picture gallery from the game. I spoil you lot.