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Men’s Football Injury-time leveller lifts Leeds out of the drop zone

Leeds 1 –1 Brighton
by Dom Smith
at Elland Road

DIG in. Never give up. Just look what can happen. Relegation was looming for Leeds, and frankly, it still is. But after an afternoon of endeavour but low quality, substitute Pascal Struijk headed in at the back post halfway through stoppage time, giving Leeds fans hope just when there was as little as there’s been all season.

Graham Potter will have been left questioning how his well-schooled Brighton side didn’t win this, but a point was the least Leeds deserved.

It was an afternoon that had started promisingly for the hosts. First, Burnley’s narrow defeat to Tottenham was announced just seconds before kick-off here at Elland Road. Then, ushered on by the buoyant home crowd, Leeds put in a frantic first 15 minutes of football — positive and, yes, promising.

In case you needed reminding of Leeds’ perilous league position — the decibels every time they won a mere throw-in ensured you didn’t — the first reminder came in the second minute.

As Spanish international Robert Sanchez dropped a corner right onto his goalline, Joe Gelhardt swivelled and volleyed on goal. It was goal-bound but hit his own captain Liam Cooper square in the face. The fine margins at this part of the league at this part of the season — oh, how enormous a second-minute goal would have been for Jesse Marsch’s side.

They’re in this mess because of a number of serious injuries to crucial players. But they’ve also been limp up front and generous in defence all season. Spain international Rodrigo joined the club for £26 million as a marquee signing, but he looked more nailed-on sale here, putting in a woeful individual display. The costliest of his misplaced passes came on 21 minutes, as he was punished for being too slow to feed the ball out to the left.

The excellent Yves Bissouma nicked it for Brighton. Leeds fans groaned piercingly. Within seconds, Danny Welbeck had twisted Diego Llorente this way and that and dinked the ball over Illan Meslier for a wonderful striker’s goal. Leeds fans knew who to go back and blame. They stood up and gestured crudely in Rodrigo’s direction.

Leeds created chances throughout. But Brighton are a more capable footballing outfit, and they looked it here. While Jack Harrison and Kalvin Phillips were firing above and wide of the target, the Seagulls were taking their time and showcasing their sharp interplay. Leeds couldn’t afford to take their time, of course. This match increasingly started to look like it will be their penultimate match as a Premier League club.

Their impatience showed as they hacked at shots here and swung at them there, failing to really trouble Sanchez. That was the case until the 42nd minute, when Mateusz Klich forced the Brighton goalkeeper into a save worthy of deciding any match.

Klich received a low corner at the edge of the box and struck on goal. Sanchez sprang across his goal to claw the ball away, crashing into his own post in the process. All inside Elland Road had expected the net to bulge in Leeds’ favour.

Raphinha has been a rare star in the Leeds side this season, and was instrumental in their second-half attempts to get level. His cut in and shot over the bar two minutes after the restart set the tone in two ways. First, it showed Leeds’ unquestionable intent. Second, it lacked the accuracy needed to cancel out Welbeck’s crafty opener.

Leandro Trossard missed a Brighton chance, before Raphinha struck a superb free-kick that on any other day would have ripped into the furthest reaches of the top corner. Sanchez leapt across again and somehow kept it out.

Within three minutes, Leeds’ Brazilian international was back at the heart of things, creating another wonderful opening. Set free down the left, he played an inch-perfect low cross which arced round the Brighton defence and met Rodrigo. The Spaniard dived in but could only stab wide. Those Leeds groans of disbelief were back.

Marsch’s side continued to trouble Brighton, who brought in the sort of time-wasting that riles up an opposing fanbase staring relegation in the face more than almost anything else.

“Get in with it,” shouted one home fan towards Sanchez. And so he did, smothering an excellent chance when it seemed for all the world like Klich would batter in the equaliser.

With time ticking on, the game became just what Brighton wanted it to be: bitty and without flow. Chances were few and far between as Potter tried to tear all the fun from the game.

That said, Gelhardt missed another huge chance as he sent the ball just wide of the post, and then Trossard’s lofted cross was headed inexplicably wide when Welbeck should have done so much better.

But Leeds had one last chance in them, and 20-year-old Gelhardt was the engineer. Llorente fed him out wide, and Gelhardt sat Brighton captain Lewis Dunk down twice with excellent trickery, before lifting a cross over his flailing leg, over the goalkeeper’s reach and dipping into the path of Pascal Struijk.

The Belgian has had an error-prone season, all things considered, but he shot Leeds out of the relegation zone with a planted header which goal-line technology awarded. The roar was deafening, and the meaning of the goal lost on no-one.

The end of a superb run of form for Brighton. For Leeds, perhaps a goal and a game that will be written about for many years to come.

Beat Brentford next weekend, and they’ll be a Premier League club next season.

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