United overcome Leeds to move closer to Europe

Elanga hit by missile thrown by fan but was unhurt on ill-tempered day at Elland Road

Leeds 2 Manchester United 4

The good, the bad, the ugly and the frankly confusing combined as Manchester United took a significant step towards Europe and Leeds moved too close to the Championship for comfort.

If the latest renewal of one of English football's greatest rivalries was undeniably exhilarating, depressingly unpleasant undertones resurfaced as missiles were hurled from the crowd with one hitting a mercifully unhurt Manchester United substitute, Anthony Elanga, in the second half.

While Leeds, albeit briefly, displayed a wonderful defiance to, at one point draw level after falling two goals behind, Jadon Sancho enjoyed arguably his best game for Ralf Rangnick's side as questions concerning Marcelo Bielsa's future at Leeds re-surfaced.

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Manchester United’s first visit to a full Elland Road since 2003 coincided with a day of torrential rain and capriciously gusty winds in West Yorkshire. If the tricky conditions, not least a sodden, pitch, were hostile, so, too was the atmosphere.

To say there is a certain antipathy between these two sets of fans would be putting it mildly and a competing soundtrack featuring the Leeds anthem, “Marching on Together” and “Pride of all Europe” from the visitors, only served to heighten the frenetic on-field intensity.

With Bielsa’s side struggling to retain possession on the heavy surface, Rangnick’s players exerted the greater control and cohesion. They came close to opening the scoring when the initially influential Paul Pogba nutmegged a startled Diego Llorente before crossing in Cristiano Ronaldo’s direction. It took an intervention from Illan Meslier’s knee to divert the resultant close range shot.

Apparent Ronaldo-centric tensions within Old Trafford seemingly prefaced Rangnick holding a series of tete-a-tete talks with senior players including his No7, Pogba and Harry Maguire last week.

Maguire has denied suggestions of a rift with Ronaldo and the pair certainly combined to positive effect as Manchester United took the lead from a Luke Shaw corner. With Ronaldo serving as a decoy, distracting the Leeds defence, and Meslier caught wrong-footed, Maguire was able to head his first goal in a United shirt since January 2021.

Back in August, Bruno Fernandes scored a hat-trick as Leeds endured a 5-1 deconstruction at Old Trafford and, shortly before half-time, Rangnick’s attacking playmaker placed himself on the scoresheet here.

Manchester United’s second goal was another header - and another reminder for Leeds fans of precisely how much they are missing the injured Kalvin Phillips in central midfield. With Robin Koch having hobbled off wounded, Bielsa lacked an enforcer in that department.

Tellingly, Fernandes was left completely unattended as Victor Lindelof’s played a slick one-two with Jesse Lingard and pinged an astute pass towards Sancho.

As Sancho, excellent throughout, crossed the alarming lack of home resistance had been fully exposed and Fernandes was entirely unopposed as he glanced a header beyond Meslier from around three yards.

By now the initial defiance was evaporating from even the mostly optimistic Leeds fan and Rangnick's decision to offer Lingard a first Premier League start of the season looked increasingly inspired.

At the end of a week in which Bielsa’s future at Elland Road has proved the subject of considerable speculation the Argentinian needed to press a few transformative tactical buttons of his own.

Raphinha has been very much Leeds shining light this season but the Brazilian has faded in recent weeks. Even so it was still something of a shock when Bielsa left him on the bench at kick-off and season-ticket holders were clearly delighted to see him step off it after the break.

Within minutes everything had changed - partly thanks to Raphinha. First Rodrigo collected the ball from Firpo wide on the left and reduced the deficit courtesy of a wickedly swerving cross shot which deceived David de Gea, evading the stunned goalkeeer’s outstretched fingertips.

No matter that it looked a bit of a fluke on the part of a forward who has scored far too few goals since his £30m arrival from Valencia, Leeds were back in the game.

Almost before Manchester United could regroup, Bielsa’s players had levelled with Raphinha – who else? – tapping in Dan James’s left footed right-wing cross as his supposed marker, Luke Shaw, dozed.

When that equaliser survived a Var review occasioned by a foul on Fernandes in the preamble, it would have been no surprise if the celebratory roar was on the other side of the Pennines.

Hats off though to James though for dodging Lingard and AaronWan-Bissaka before creating a goal scored barely a minute after Rodrigo’s.

After Ronaldo had been booked for complaining about the foul on Fernandes, the moment for Rangnick to really earn his money arrived. The visiting manager desired two new faces were needed and duly hooked the fading Lingard and, rather more contentiously, Pogba, introducing Fred and Anthony Elanga.

Talk about inspired. Shortly after that switch, a fluid Manchester United counter-attack concluded with Sancho contributing the cutest of lay-offs and Fred volleying a superlative third visiting goal.

The only shame was that the celebrations – not to mention the occasion – was scarred by the object thrown from the crowd which struck Elanga on the head. Sadly it did not prove an isolated incident, Maguire having picked another missile up from the pitch as the teams trooped off at half-time before presenting it to Paul Tierney, the referee.

Mercifully Elanga was not badly hurt and swiftly dusted himself down before rejoining the increasingly helter skelter, sometimes kamikaze run of play.

After watching De Gea did well to divert Stuart Dallas’s volley Rangnick decided caution was called for and replaced Ronaldo with Raphael Varane as his side switched to a back three.

All that remained was for Elanga to, appropriately, enjoy the last word, the 19-year-old Swede shooting Manchester United’s fourth goal through Meslier’s legs after an exquisite flick from Fernandes confused Pascal Struijk.

When that goal was quickly followed by a foul on Elanga from Firpo, provoking a minor melee it seemed entirely in keeping with the slightly chaotic, mildly manic tenor of this latest episode of an ancient rivalry.