Marcelo Bielsa witnessed Leeds United move a step closer to the Premier League this afternoon as they beat Fulham 3-0 at Elland Road.
Leeds took a first-half lead through Patrick Bamford’s 14th goal of the season, but it wasn’t until the second period when the Whites grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, as goals from Ezgjan Alioski and Jack Harrison put Scott Parker’s men to the sword.
The win leaves Leeds top of the Championship table, 10 points clear of Fulham, with an eight-point buffer to Brentford in third. The automatic promotion race is now firmly in the hands of Bielsa.
Despite the game being staged behind closed doors there was a ‘big game’ feel to the afternoon and, as we know, big games can often rest on big decisions. Tony Harrington’s failure to see Aleksandar Mitrovic’s elbow on Ben White inside the opening two minutes had Leeds’ bench in uproar and they wanted a red; up for the fight and whatever Fulham threw at them.
It took Bielsa’s side a while to settle down after that and Anthony Knockaert dragged a shot wide after good work from Parker’s No.9.
However, Leeds’ breakthrough was just around the corner.
Helder Costa turned the ball over and drove into the Fulham area before picking out Bamford, who made no mistake in burying a chance beyond Marek Rodak. Critics silenced on only 10 minutes.
As you might expect, Fulham came back stronger. A Mitrovic volley was tamely wide, whilst Illan Meslier was forced into action to deny a clever volley from Knockaert.
Parker’s side lost all cutting edge in the final third moments later after a strong piece of build-up play between Mitrovic and Harry Arter. Their work looked to give Bobby Reid the freedom of the Leeds area to level things, but Bielsa’s defence snuffed out the danger.
By the mid-point of the first-half, Fulham began turning the screw and Parker will have been happy with how his side had reacted to Bamford’s opener.
What the Fulham boss wasn’t happy with, though, was Harrington’s failure to award his side a penalty on 34 minutes after a loose ball whipped up and struck the arm of Tyler Roberts. This time a decision in Leeds’ favour at a tense Elland Road.
Knockaert curled over and Mitrovic stung the palms of Meslier with a rasping volley.
The latter was never far away from the action, or controversy, but will have been disappointed in himself as he headed a Joe Bryan corner wide during this sustained spell of pressure leading into half-time.
Bielsa’s reaction to Fulham’s dominance was to hook the men who’d given Leeds the lead: Bamford and Costa off, the experience of Pablo Hernandez called for, alongside Alioski’s energy.
And, the decision to shift Roberts into striking position almost worked instantly as the youngster drifted into space on the left expertly only to fire across Rodak’s goal.
The Welshman was at it again moments later, finding space on the right before cutting back for Harrison, whose shot was deflected wide at a time when those lucky enough to be present at Elland Road expected to see the net bulge.
Leeds’ play was more intense after the break and Bielsa’s changes were working, but Knockaert and Reid were testing Meslier as Fulham probed for an equaliser. The young goalkeeper inspired Leeds in another way, however, unleashing them on one of their lethal counterattacks.
Luke Ayling was given space to feed Mateusz Klich, whose excellent vision sent Harrison away down the right. The winger’s first time cross wasn’t clean, but it was effective enough to catch Fulham out, leaving Alioski acres of space to roll Leeds into a 2-0 lead.
And, Leeds were in the mood for more as Hernandez started pulling the strings. The Spaniard was missed last weekend as Leeds were beaten in Cardiff, but he more than made up for that with an outstanding assist as Bielsa’s side turned a screw of their own.
A raking pass sent Harrison galloping down the right and by the time the 23-year-old had eventually brought the ball under his spell, he had enough about him to bury it under Rodak for 3-0.
The intensity of Leeds’ second-half performance was a statement to the Championship and Parker had no answer for it, dodging the rain as Neeskens Kebano received his marching orders for a second bookable offence.
His side have it all to do if they want automatic promotion and the acceptance at Craven Cottage might now be it’s going to be the play-offs.
For Leeds, though, there’s a very different feel. They are motoring along and, on the evidence of this, the Premier League is closer than ever for Marcelo Bielsa.
Full-time: Leeds United 3-0 Fulham.