Monday , July 4 2022

Struijk strike earns draw with Brighton to keep Leeds’ survival hopes alive | Premier League

Not a single Leeds supporter would have picked Pascal Struijk as the star of the penultimate act of the incredible rollercoaster ride that is the Premier League survival race. Leeds have shown little respect for the script to this point, though, so it is perhaps no surprise that a defender thrown on with seven minutes remaining scored the goal that could yet be key to keeping them in the Premier League.

There are still more twists and turns to come but the scenes as Struijk frantically headed home Joe Gelhardt’s chipped cross in added time told you everything you needed to know. Elland Road came together as one at the culmination of an absorbing afternoon that left several of the home players sinking to the turf at full time, emotionally and physically spent. A few minutes earlier, the mood could not have been more different.

Dispensing with Marcelo Bielsa in February remains a gamble that could yet backfire. With five minutes remaining and the hosts seemingly on their way to a fourth consecutive defeat, loud renditions of Bielsa’s name could be heard before the fans turned their ire on the board. You cannot dispute that despite some early bounce after Jesse Marsch’s appointment, Leeds are really no better without Bielsa than they were with him.

But while this Leeds side lack some things, they do not lack spirit and endeavour. One goal, no matter how it came, was always going to change everything.

All of a sudden, if Burnley slip up against Aston Villa in their remaining game in hand on Thursday, Leeds go to Brentford on the final day with their destiny in their own hands. “It’s a massive moment,” Marsch said. “We’re alive right now. We just have to fight for every point, any point gets us a bit closer and shifts a bit of the momentum.

“We know Burnley have a match in hand and we need some help, but we need to be ready for next weekend and do whatever it takes. The resolve from the group, the mentality to fight for everything, is what makes this group special.”

Brighton had certainly earned their lead throughout a first half in which they cut Leeds open at will. The hosts began brightly but as the half wore on you felt Leeds’ defensive frailties would yield a goal and that moment arrived when Danny Welbeck’s clever chip looped over Illan Meslier and put the visitors ahead. The atmosphere changed and as half-time approached the onus fell on Leeds to respond.

Illan Meslier and Diego Llorente of Leeds United look on as Danny Welbeck scores Brighton’s first goal during the Premier League match at Elland Road on 15 May, 2022.
Danny Welbeck scores past Illan Meslier to give Brighton a first half lead. Photograph: George Wood/Getty Images

A wonderful last-ditch tackle from Robin Koch prevented Leandro Trossard from doubling Brighton’s lead and, as Graham Potter insisted afterwards, his side were the better team in that first half. But the second half was a different story, with only a string of exceptional saves from Robert Sánchez keeping the Seagulls ahead.

“We were so strong in that first half,” Potter said. “We attacked well and had some great opportunities. But we always needed the second because it’s so difficult to control things here in this environment.”

Sánchez kept Mateusz Klich out on two occasions either side of half-time. The first was a remarkable save as Klich curled an effort towards the top corner, for the second the striker was denied at point-blank range. The Brighton goalkeeper was also at his best to prevent Raphinha’s inch-perfect free-kick from going in and as he repelled Leeds time and time again, you felt the fizz in the hosts’ play begin to temper somewhat.

Marsch knew it too, judging by his overzealous protestations of every decision that went against his side. With his options on the bench limited, particularly in terms of attacking prowess, Marsch went for experience over youth, sacrificing Junior Firpo for Struijk before the home fans made their feelings abundantly clear about their adulation for Bielsa and their frustration towards the board who removed him.

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As the hosts huffed and puffed without any success, with the game inching towards injury time, you sensed Leeds were beginning to need a miracle. Defeat would have meant they went to Brentford next Sunday all but down if Burnley were to win on Thursday but then, as the pressure intensified, Gelhardt fought to keep the ball alive and Struijk appeared from nowhere at the back post to spark pandemonium.

This story is by no means over yet and amid the chaos it was easy to forget Burnley still have this fight in their own hands. But if it is Leeds celebrating next Sunday, this moment will be viewed as priceless.

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