The wait had felt interminable and, at times, simply agonising but, at long last, Leeds fans were finally able to watch their team’s first Premier Lesgue game at Elland Road with a capacity crowd since 2004.
After a full season of pandemic induced lockouts – barring the last game of the season – following last year’s promotion to the top tier, a full house of 36,293 turned the ground into a wall of noise as they waved the yellow fans distributed specially to mark the occasion.
Any fears the football itself might be a bit of an anticlimax were swiftly
allayed as a breathlessly brilliant contest unfolded, with the choreography confirming that Marcelo Bielsa and Rafa Benítez are two of the finest coaches of their generation.
At first the midfield seemed as congested as the roads outside the stadium before kick-off. Judging by the ferocity of some of the tackles tempers were in danger of overheating as badly as a few car engines stuck in the gridlock. But then Dominic Calvert-Lewin ghosted in on Liam Cooper’s blind-side and Bielsa’s captain not so much pulled the centre forward’s shirt as embraced him in bear hug.
A VAR reviewed ensured and Darren England, the referee, also consulted his pitch-side monitor but the outcome of those deliberations was never really in doubt. A penalty was duly awarded and, despite taking a daringly short run up, Calvert-Lewin’s kick easily evaded Illan Meslier’s reach.
Unbowed, Leeds supporters simply upped the decibel level, reminding their team they were “marching on together” and Bielsa’s players responded with a fine goal. Patrick Bamford pickpocketed Michael Keane and supplied Mateusz Klich with a clever reverse pass.
All that remained was for Klich – deployed in the “hole” between midfield and attack in a 3-3-1-3 to accelerate into the area before dinking the ball beyond the advancing Jordan Pickford. That delicate chip seemed emblematic of the subtlety of Klich’s play as he sashayed through the sometimes surprisingly large gaps between Everton’s midfield and central defenders. Small wonder Rafa Benítez spent much of the first half filling his notebook with apparently urgent observations.
His side had arrived slightly late after becoming temporarily trapped on the slip road off the M621 leading to Elland Road and initially did not look entirely comfortable as they alternated between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2.
Happily for Benítez, Demarai Gray proved a notable exception and always appeared capable of disrupting Bielsa’s gameplan. Sure enough, the former Leicester winger, signed from Bayer Leverkusen this summer, restored Everton’s leading early in the second half.
After collecting a fine pass from Abdoulaye Doucouré – who would prove increasingly influential in midfield – Gray conjured himself a scoring opening by shifting the ball on to his less favoured left foot and arrowing in a fabulous low, angled shot beyond Meslier.
Although Leeds continued to enjoy a lot of possession, Everton were now a growing menace on the counterattack. Indeed, but for some excellent goalkeeping on Meslier’s part Calvert-Lewis could conceivably have registered a hat-trick by the hour mark.
Benitez’s defence had succeeded in isolating Bamford and Raphinha, leaving Jordan Pickford with precious little to do in goal. The moment had come for Kalvin Phillips to remind everyone why he was so important to England in this summer’s European Championship and the midfielder did not disappoint as he lofted a splendid ball into the area.
Cooper laid it off to Raphinha who, finally seizing the spotlight he occupied so often last season, curled a sumptuous, yet venomous low left foot shot beyond the unsighted Pickford from the edge of the area.