The new year may only be hours old, but here was a game to suggest Leeds United and Burnley could be moving in different directions in the months ahead. For Leeds this pressure-relieving result will have reinforced what their most optimistic supporters always believed: that the team had the quality and mettle to drag themselves away from a relegation battle this season.
This result does not make things guaranteed in that regard. But a gap of eight points between Leeds and the bottom three offers hope that Marcelo Bielsa and his side can now tentatively look up the table, rather than glancing over their shoulders at the sides below them.
Had the home side failed to capitalise on their dominance against Burnley, the questions which have already been levied at Bielsa’s players on numerous occasions this season would have resurfaced.
Perhaps that is why Bielsa, so often a master of keeping his emotions in check, could not help himself when he enthusiastically embraced members of his coaching staff when Dan James finally put this result beyond doubt with his injury-time goal. That made it 3-1 in Leeds’s favour, and in truth the result and the margin of the win did not flatter the hosts.
“It was a fair victory, and the difference was also fair,” Bielsa said afterwards, while also calling on his side to use this new-found momentum moving forward.
“I don’t ignore the situation that we are in. In football, you have to prove yourself every week and even if the performance today was a step forward, we need to maintain that level of performance against any opponent and on any pitch.”
Bielsa’s side led 1-0 at half-time and, just like the final outcome, it was no less than they deserved at that stage.
Having enjoyed the better of the chances in the first half, the goal Leeds’s play merited came when Jack Harrison scored on the rebound after his initial strike was saved by Wayne Hennessey.
Had Tyler Roberts done better with a Luke Ayling cross he headed wide of Hennessey’s goal, the hosts could have even been out of sight by half-time.
It was fast becoming a case of when, not if, Sean Dyche called for Maxwel Cornet to inspire his side as he has done so often already this season. The change came at the interval and within nine minutes of the restart the Ivorian had dragged his side level with a wonderful curling free-kick.
It was Cornet’s sixth goal in only 11 Premier League appearances, and as he prepares to head to the Africa Cup of Nations for potentially the next month, it is tempting to wonder just how entrenched in the relegation quagmire Burnley could be upon the Ivorian’s return.
Cornet’s influence on this side is without question. How do Burnley cope without him? That is a pressing question to which Dyche must find the answer this month in the transfer window.
“They had a little bit more edge against us today with that desire,” the Burnley manager said. “They had a physical will to go and take on the game, even in times they weren’t playing well.
“All these details eventually, if they go in the melting pot, they’re going to hurt you: and we hurt ourselves.”
Cornet’s free-kick was a moment of brilliance, the latest the 25-year-old has delivered in a Burnley shirt. It sparked enthusiastic celebrations from the travelling players in front of the Leeds supporters before Matthew Lowton was struck by a bottle. Paul Tierney had pleaded with the Burnley players not to celebrate at the home end but, regardless of that, the fact Lowton required medical attention underlined what a mindless act it was from the supporter – if you can call him that – in question.
Leeds regrouped from that setback though and, freshened by the introduction of James and Joe Gelhardt from the bench, went back ahead when a clever short corner found its way to Stuart Dallas. His magnificent strike left Hennessey flatfooted as it curled into the corner to put the hosts 2-1 in front, before Leeds finally added the killer touch in stoppage time.
How pleasing it must have been for Bielsa to see two substitutes combine for the third, as Gelhardt’s cross was met by the head of James. Hennessey parried it, but could not keep it out, sparking wild celebrations inside Elland Road.
Perhaps the home supporters, much like Bielsa judging by his own reaction, can sense the tide may be turning as 2022 begins.