Chelsea stroll to victory and crank up pressure on 10-man Leeds
It is beginning to look like no amount of motivational quotes can save Leeds United’s Premier League status. For all of Jesse Marsch’s effusion about how the likes of Mahatma Gandhi have seeped into his team talks since arriving at Elland Road, there is no substitution for keeping your composure in the heat of battle when it truly matters.
This was another defeat for Leeds, their third in succession, and the second in a matter of days in which a first-half red card has made an already difficult task even more arduous. There is no suggestion Dan James’ tackle on Mateo Kovacic after half an hour here decisively swung the balance of power in Chelsea’s favour, but after Luke Ayling’s moment of madness at Arsenal on Sunday left Leeds with an uphill task, this is becoming a worrying trend at precisely the wrong time.
Realistically, Chelsea were too good for Leeds even without James’s dismissal. They were already ahead before that thanks to Mason Mount’s strike after just four minutes, and they had the possession and chances to increase that lead further. But when James was dismissed, any notion of Leeds salvaging something faded. They were then put to the sword after half-time as goals from Christian Pulisic and Romelu Lukaku inched Chelsea ever closer to a top four finish.
After a chastening period for Thomas Tuchel, this was an encouraging and ultimately comfortable way to warm up for Saturday’s FA Cup Final. As for Leeds, they host Brighton on Saturday before a trip to Brentford on the final day knowing six points may not be enough to keep them up, though the suggestion they could even muster back-to-back victories is, on recent evidence at least, somewhat optimistic.
With Ayling suspended, Marsch delivered on his pre-match suggestion that he would utilise Raphinha, arguably Leeds’ most creative attacker, as a wing-back in a 3-4-3, with Lewis Bate earning his first Leeds start against the club he spent almost a decade with as a youth player. They were among four changes made by Marsch but just as against Arsenal on Sunday, within five minutes here, Leeds had fallen behind.
The opener was a well-worked move between Reece James and Mount, who interchanged passes on the edge of the Leeds box before Mount delivered a precise strike that left Illan Meslier with little chance, and dampen the pre-match atmosphere inside Elland Road. You could feel the tension among the home supporters as each pass went astray, and Chelsea were doing their best to take advantage.
They could, and perhaps should, have gone further ahead inside the opening ten minutes; Mount almost had a second had it not been for Diego Llorente’s frantic clearance, while a low ball across goal narrowly evaded Lukaku. There was certainly endeavour in Leeds’ response, albeit with a lack of potency, Bate coming the closest with a shot after the ball deflected into his path. But as the half-hour mark approached Leeds’ temperament once again cost them dearly.
After Ayling’s moment of madness at Arsenal, Dan James then followed suit with another rash challenge. James did connect with the ball in a crunching tackle with Kovacic but there could be little doubt his follow-through was dangerous, catching the Croatian high. Despite James’ protestations, Anthony Taylor had little choice but to send the winger off and in one moment of entirely avoidable madness, an already tricky evening’s work for Leeds was now bordering on the impossible.
It was a challenge which ultimately forced Kovacic from the field several minutes later and by half-time, Leeds would have been grateful to only be one behind. Lukaku had the ball in the net before being flagged offside and as the interval arrived, perhaps the biggest surprise was that Chelsea’s incessant pressure had not yielded more goals.
What followed after the break felt like more of a procession for Chelsea, though. The inevitable goal that killed the game as a contest came ten minutes after the restart as Mount turned provider for Pulisic to fire low past a flat-footed Meslier and ensure the visitors would pull four points clear of Arsenal, and eight of Tottenham, in the battle for Champions League football next season.
Just like on Sunday at Arsenal, Leeds showed plenty of spirit to try and claw back an impossible situation. But like three days earlier, the damage had long since been done. As Chelsea sauntered through the final quarter knowing victory had long been assured, Llorente dallied in possession and the visitors sprang on the counter, leading to Lukaku eventually getting his goal with seven minutes remaining.