There was a statement of intent from Leeds United this afternoon, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side 5-0 winners against Stoke City.
Leeds had a 45th minute penalty from Mateusz Klich to thank for giving them a half-time lead, but Michael O’Neill’s side were put to the sword on the back of that as goals from Helder Costa, Liam Cooper, Pablo Hernandez and Patrick Bamford wrapped up a convincing win.
Wins for Fulham, Brentford and West Brom earlier in the week ensured the pressure was on for Leeds this afternoon, but Marcelo Bielsa’s side answered any questions of them emphatically at Elland Road to move back to the top of the Championship table.
A brisk July afternoon in West Yorkshire almost caught Jack Butland out inside the opening 26 seconds, but the Stoke goalkeeper was equal to a curling Tyler Roberts effort.
Stoke’s plan for a tricky test at Elland Road could have been out of the window had that nestled in the far corner, but, as it was, O’Neill’s side were organised in their 3-4-3 system, working hard at both ends of the pitch.
The opening 20 minutes saw Stoke look to impose themselves physically on the home side and Leeds knew they were in for a battle as Sam Vokes, Tyrese Campbell and Nick Powell worked tirelessly to unsettle Bielsa’s defence.
Leeds usually create a hatful of chances, but they were made to work for openings in the first-half. Nevertheless, they were desperately unlucky to not break the deadlock as we ticked by 20 minutes.
Bamford burst beyond the Stoke defence and lifted over Butland, but a covering James McClean was equal to it and Danny Batth blocked Roberts’ rebound magnificently.
Roberts and Jack Harrison were off target with efforts later in the half and as Stoke continued to frustrate the life out of Leeds, tension lifted.
Needlessly, as we ticked toward half-time, Tommy Smith was forced into a lunge as Costa advanced, bringing the winger down and gifting Leeds the chance to ruin all Stoke’s fine work.
Klich stepped up to send Butland the wrong way and convert the resulting penalty, giving Leeds a near-perfect half when it should’ve been a frustrating one.
A perfect platform to build on at the start of the second-half and Leeds obliged, doubling their lead minutes after the break.
Stuart Dallas combined with half-time sub, Hernandez, cutting in from the left and splitting the Stoke back-three with a killer ball. On the end of it was Costa, with enough composure to poke beyond Butland and into the far corner.
Bielsa’s side can often struggle against a compact side like this, but with Stoke forced to open up, Leeds began exploiting space. Bamford rattled Butland’s crossbar and then forced the goalkeeper into a near-post save.
‘Good football, Leeds United’ was the cry from Victor Orta in the middle of the West Stand, as Dallas and Hernandez combined again to launch another Leeds attack.
A third goal was just around the corner and more clever work from Hernandez brought it. The Spaniard drifted into space as Stoke’s defence struggled with Leeds’ movement, before picking out Cooper, who punched a left-footed shot in off Butland’s post.
Hernandez had Leeds ticking and he set Harrison free down the left superbly on 68 minutes, the Manchester City loanee was able to drive at Batth and his shot forced an unorthodox save out of Butland.
The home side were taking any sting out of Stoke and picking their moments. Patient build-up from Leeds’ defence pulled O’Neill’s structure to pieces and, on 72 minutes, Luke Ayling chose the perfect time to puncture a hole through the heart of the side and unleash Costa.
Costa tore past his marker, but retained composure, pulling back to the edge of the area for Hernandez to fire beyond Butland after a neat step over from Bamford.
As stoppage time drew to a close there was room for more and Ayling’s fine long ball found Bamford, who converted off both posts for his 16th goal of the season.
At this point and for a lot of the second-half, Stoke were buried, leaving O’Neill’s side still flirting with relegation and plenty of questions being asked of this squad of players that are so strong on paper.
Questions are being asked at the other end of the table; Brentford are producing win upon win and West Brom have found their groove.
However, Leeds, for now, are finding the answer in some style.
Full-time: Leeds United 5-0 Stoke City.