There is nationwide sadness at the continued absence of supporters from Premier League stadiums, even if it feels eerily normal these days to see empty seats everywhere you look. But as Patrick Bamford scored Leeds United’s second goal here to put them out of sight against Crystal Palace, you had to wonder what Elland Road would have felt like on a night like this.
Leeds has waited for long enough to see its football side back in the Premier League. Just being here this season would have felt like an achievement for some supporters of a club who have spent years in the wilderness. But luckily for them, Marcelo Bielsa and his supporters do not share that sentiment, it seems.
Irrespective of the opposition, Bielsa’s Leeds only know one way. On occasions this season it has been their undoing, but on a night like this, as the Leeds players cut their opponents open at will, you could not help but feel that those home supporters would have cherished it more than ever. The nights where Leeds United look every inch a Premier League side.
It felt from an early stage this season that with the way Leeds play, relegation was unlikely. Now it is a foregone conclusion they will remain in the Premier League next season. In fact, as they moved into the top half with almost two-thirds of the season gone, this Leeds United side are looking up, not down: a common theme of their re-emergence under Bielsa.
“We generally caused them danger,” he admitted afterwards. “The fact we won the Championship [last season] is always getting further away, and we’re taking our step into the Premier League now, trying to play as naturally as possible and show that we deserve to be in this league.”
Here, they had too much for a Crystal Palace side without their biggest attacking outlet. Their record without Wilfried Zaha is astonishing, with this their 17th defeat in the last 19 games the forward has missed. In truth though, even Zaha’s presence may not have had a defining difference on the final outcome, given how Leeds performed.
“We were deservedly beaten,” Roy Hodgson conceded. “We made life difficult for ourselves with the goals we conceded at the start of each half, and any chance of staying in the game was damaged by the second. We have to accept that we lost to the better team.”
Hodgson opted for two full-backs on the left, with Patrick van Aanholt ahead of Tyrick Mitchell. By half-time, that plan was abandoned, with Van Aanholt replaced by Andros Townsend and Palace fortunate not to be more than one goal behind. Leeds broke the deadlock after three minutes, when Jack Harrison’s deflected shot beat Vicente Guaita. It was only the start of things to come.
The home side were relentless all evening as chance after chance arrived – most of them through the brilliance of Raphinha. The Brazilian continues to look like a player who not only fits Bielsa’s beliefs to perfection, but also the Premier League. The standout moment of his first half was when he bamboozled Gary Cahill with a sublime piece of skill that left the defender having no option but to haul him to the ground. Yet despite Raphinha and Leeds’ dominance, they were unable to add to Harrison’s early strike throughout the first half.
But that changed after half-time. Raphinha’s shot was saved by Guaita, but Bamford was on hand to convert the 100th club goal of his career. Had Pascal Struijk scored any number of headed opportunities he had, or Harrison’s effort which hit the bar in injury time been fractionally lower, this could have been an even more comfortable night for Leeds.
In response, Palace could only muster a wayward effort from Eberechi Eze in the final minutes as their best chance of the night. By then, though, their race had been run: and Leeds had long since ensured it would be them, not their opponents, who moved into the top half of the table.