West Ham United 2 (Bowen 33, Fornals 52)
Leeds United 3 (Harrison 10, 37, 60)
A 2 – 3 victory in London! Who’d have thought it eh? Certainly not too many thought we’d return to Yorkshire with all three points from this one – although I do know a few who were very confident we would! I was thinking a draw would be a fine result while of course knowing that, if we could just get a decent line up on the pitch from the start, get everyone playing to their fiercest best and, probably most important of all, get the bounce of the ball for once in the Capital, then, of course, we could beat the Hammers.
And so it proved to be. From the start, we actually looked the better side, with the return of Raphinha, Dallas and Adam Forshaw from the start changing the balance between these two sides to tip it ever so slightly in our favour. For once we had eleven players on the pitch who could rightly be described as solid and regular members of the first-team squad, without having to steal any young Under 23s who have yet to prove their long term worth. Yes, we were still playing with Dan James as a makeshift centre forward in the continuing absence of Patrick Bamford but, otherwise, every player in a white shirt could be judged as a worthy first choice who’d proved themselves many times before.
So well was it going that Leeds dominated the opening exchanges and looked set for a possible rare win South of Watford as Jack Harrison opened the scoring in the 10th minute. A long ball down the Leeds right saw Raphinha get behind the Hammers backline, he fed it back to Matty Klich and a first-time shot smarted the hands of Lukasz Fabianski. Adam Forshaw collected the loose ball and fed it to Jack Harrison and the Leeds ‘22’ hammered the ball into the corner with a sweet strike that brought back all the memories of similar strikes we got used to seeing from him regularly last season. 1 – 0 Leeds.
And then that London curse appeared to fall upon us from a great height! Within the space of a couple of minutes, Leeds had used two substitutes and Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo had limped off! Two players only recently back from long spells on the sidelines. Their replacements immediately put our XI back to something like we started with last week as we were forced to once again dip into the U23 ranks to utilise Lewis Bate and Leo Hjelde. The thing is though, this time there was no real concern that either would let us down as they’d both put in tremendous performances in that cup tie against the same opposition just seven days earlier. We all now had confidence that the net effect on the side would be hardly noticeable in anything bar experience.
Leeds did miss Adam Forshaw I think and West Ham certainly got more into the game as the first half wore on but the changes were seamless and Leeds had already grabbed that one-goal lead. But there are certain things that Leeds have found hard to fix during the Bielsa reign and we were about to suffer one of them again. Only Aston Villa have given up the lead in games this season more than Leeds and it was no real surprise it was from a corner that we did it again in the 33rd minute.
We’d just minutes earlier had a warning as Craig Dawson was given the freedom of the Leeds penalty area at a corner, although thankfully he messed that one up and headed wide when it looked easier to score. But the marking at the next West Ham corner looked remarkably similar and just as poor and this time the in-form Jarrod Bowen ghosted in to head past Meslier to the disgust of the lads standing behind me who’d pointed out exactly what the problem was seconds earlier! 1 -1 and that London sinking feeling was engulfing me again.
I guess it took us a while to settle in with Bate and Hjelde adjusting to the tempo of the game, but eight minutes before the break our one-goal lead was restored and it was the jumping Jack Harrison again in the right place at the right time and, somewhat ironically, it came from a Leeds corner; again something of a rarity over the last few years! Raphinha whipped the corner across from the left, Luke Ayling challenged and won the header to direct the ball at goal and Jack was there, as alert as we saw him throughout last season, to guide the ball inside the back post. 2 -1 Leeds at half-time and hopes were rising! Leeds dominated that first 45 minutes to the tune of 61% of the possession.
Leeds were determined to keep us on our toes today though and, for the eighth time this season, we gave up the lead again in the 52nd minute. It was poor defending from Leeds again and we should have learned when St Maximin scored a similar goal against us up at St James’ Park. This time the ball broke to Fornals on the left of the Leeds area and somehow we allowed him to work his way across the area from left to right only to then reverse a low shot with his right foot back inside the left post. 2 – 2 and dismay again. Anyone watching who had seen any recent Leeds games in London would, like me, then have been fearing the worst.
This time though, there was something sharp about Leeds’ play, something that we haven’t really seen for any more than fleeting moments this season. Every one of our players seemed on their toes and ready for any bounce of the ball. The game had reached the hour mark as Stuart Dallas, looking like a man possessed, steamed in to win the ball just inside the West Ham half from the much slower of mind Vlasic. Quick as a flash the ever alert Raphinha saw Jack Harrison running into space on the left of the area and picked him out with an inch-perfect pass. It was just left for Jack to show us a calm finish and, for once, he didn’t disappoint. He lifted the ball majestically over the approaching Fabianski and the ball nestled delightfully into the net. It was the sort of finish we had been crying out for from several of our players all season. Indeed it was the sort of finish that we needed from Dan James late in the first half when he contrived to pick out the one yard in which Fabianski was standing and not the other seven yards of unguarded net. No such worries for Jack who had completed his first professional hat-trick.
Leeds could have made this even more comfortable too; Raphinha clipped a free kick against the right post and a Matty Klich strike that flew into the net after more good work from Raphinha was ruled out because it struck Rodrigo who was standing on the goal line. It was technically the correct VAR call but a daft and disappointing one as it would have been another fine Leeds goal.
It wasn’t all one way of course and the home side had a glorious chance at the end when Bowen somehow chested over the bar when he ought to have scored (he’s not that good then! LOL!) and they also had a goal ruled out correctly for offside too. But this was our day and a narrow margin of victory for the Mighty Whites was about right on the day.
Another three points to keep that gap between us and the bottom three at nine points and with a game still in hand was vital but the nature of this performance was just as significant. It suggests that we won’t be worrying about relegation for much longer. We are slowly but surely finding all the ingredients we had in our locker last season and, with some players returning from injury (we hope the latest set-backs for Forshaw and Firpo are not long-term) and others finally finding their form, we now look in the best shape we have been so far in this campaign. We have to now follow this up with another top performance against the Toon at the weekend and, if we do, things will suddenly look a whole lot brighter as Spring approaches!
West Ham Utd Leeds Utd
Possession 47% 53%
Shots 15 18
On Target 5 5
Corners 4 3
Fouls Committed 6 9