IBO Reporter : channonite
|This was the moment I had been waiting for this past year or so. Fans back in the stadium and to be fair to the 7,291 (according to the official attendance figures), it sounded like a lot more. As usual the loudest noise was coming from The Northam and that is just how it should be.
From the kick-off it became apparent what you miss just watching on TV, the movement of both sides was mesmerising (something I will come back to later). Two Saints players in particular impressed me pretty much immediately - Mohammed Salisu and Nathan Tella. The former is a really big unit, not easy to knock off the ball and he clearly takes no prisoners. A couple of Leeds players quickly discovered this, wincing as they got back to their feet. He reminds me of VVD when he first came to St.Mary's in the way he plays, although Salisu is considerably beefier. Tella on the other hand was lightning fast and with good ball control. He had the Leeds defenders in all sorts of trouble from the off. There is a youthful exuberance that reminded me of Danny Wallace in many ways. Both are Saints future next season and that is certainly no bad thing.
I expected Leeds to have a right go at Saints, but it was the home side who quickly had the upper hand, with the speed and directness of Adams, Tella, Walcott and Djenepo doing everything but put the ball in the net. Yes, a familiar story with Saints for most of this year. The nearest Saints got to scoring in the opening exchanges was after a JWP free kick and several passes later Armstrong's attempted cross into the box was deflected up into the air, coming down invitingly for Adams to send a powerful header goalwards, which the Leeds goalie did well to parry over. The fans were very vocal and you could really feel the expectant atmosphere around the ground.
After a Leeds raid up to the other end, which ended with Dallas shooting wide, Saints came straight back down to the other end and Tella fed Adams, who ended up with a shot that he didn't quite connect properly with, but still on target. Casilla at full stretch managed to push the ball away, going behind for another corner. This was really exciting stuff and I know it sounds ridiculous with only just over 7,000 in the stadium, but the place was rocking. The corner was fired in by JWP and Casilla flapped at it and only succeeded in pushing the ball down for Tella, who was under pressure from two defenders, only managed to send over the bar. Phew.
There was more of this during the rest of the half, but none of the pressure resulted in a goal and you wondered if Saints would regret that in the second half.
The big surprise as the teams came out for the second half was that Danny Ings had replaced Ché Adams. I couldn't really understand that, unless Adams had picked up some sort of injury, which it turned out was exactly the issue. Something was mentioned about some sort of groin strain, which will keep him out of the last match of the season against West Ham.
The first decent chance fell to Saints when the referee awarded a free kick some ten yards from the penalty area, as the defending wall was set up right on the line. Ward-Prowse sent a curling shot in, which hit the corner of the crossbar and upright and went behind for a goal kick.
Leeds suddenly stepped up several gears and were really putting Saints under pressure. One thing that I was suddenly aware of was the movement of Leeds off the ball. Whenever the ball went dead, for a goal kick, or throw in, the team snapped back into shape, without anything being said. The analogy that occurred to me at the time was of someone opening an umbrella very quickly and this speed of thought was catching Saints out. Bielsa has got this side working very well.
Saints were pressing for the opening goal and just not able to keep possession, which resulted in several mad, frantic races down towards McCarthy's goal. On one of these dashes Bamford beat Vestergaard to the ball and McCarthy came way out of his goal and failed to get the ball, clipping the Leeds No9's heels as he went past in the area. Everyone around me thought it was a penalty, which I am sure it would have been if Bamford had gone down, but the ball was still in play and he went after it, but the recovering Vestergaard managed to clear it behind for a corner. Lucky, lucky McCarthy. The resulting corner came to nothing.
This was a really good match, end to end stuff from two good teams and Saints went on the attack again, with Tella and Ward-Prowse both coming close in the same move, but the momentum was starting to shift towards Leeds and they looked more composed. McCarthy was the keeper working harder now and he saved a shot right on the line from Alioski, following some slick passing and some desperate defending around the edge of the box.
The key to the change in fortunes was rooted in the halftime substitutions. Bielsa made two changes, taking off the tantrum prone Llorente and Phillips, while bringing on Berardi and Struijk. Those changes seemed to supercharge the team and eventually they made the breakthrough. Rodrigo sent a clever chip over the top of the defenders for Bamford to run onto, which he did to great effect, running between Vestergaard and Stephens to slide the ball between McCarthy's legs. 0-1 and still just under twenty minutes left.
Minutes later it almost got worse for the home side, when Rapinha had the ball in the net, but the linesman's flag was up. Offside.
Saints were pushing for the equaliser, but in doing so were leaving bigger and bigger gaps at the back. By now Redmond and Diallo had come on for Walcott and Tella, but those changes actually seemed to make the team worse.
Time ticked away and the 90 minutes were up, with the fourth official indicating six minutes of added time.
Even now Saints chances kept coming. Ings hooked a shot wide, the sort of chance that he would normally take, but not today. Then Stephens had an even better chance, but could only head tamely straight into Casilla's arms.
The final blow came in the 5th minute of added time when Roberts shot home from just inside the area, making the final score 2-0 and it just felt a totally unfair end to what had been a superb match.
At the end Ralph and the players walked around the stadium applauding the fans and for us, that was the end of a very strange season indeed. One more away game to go at West Ham next Sunday and we can only hope that some sort of normality will have returned by the time the next season starts.
One nice little postscript - there were two men and a woman sat in the front row near me, who were draped in Malian flags and had been shouting on the team all match long. At the final whistle Moussa Djenepo asked one of the staff for a coat and took his match shirt off. When he had eventually managed to zip the borrowed coat up, he walked over and gave the elder of the two men his shirt. A nice touch.
Man of the Match
It seems strange going for a Man of the Match in a 2-0 loss, but make no mistake, this was a cracking match between two evenly matched sides. Two players that I have already mentioned really impressed me, Nathan Tella and Mohammed Salisu, both will be good to see again next season. The player who kept catching my eye though was Stuart Armstrong, so much of what he does seems to go unnoticed, but he and James Ward-Prowse have been the backbone of the side all season, certainly since Oriol Romeu was injured. His surging purposeful runs were a joy to watch.