MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Leeds United 0 – 1 Blackburn Rovers

MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Leeds United 0 – 1 Blackburn Rovers

A perfect performance was dispatched by Blackburn Rovers as Sammie Szmodics’ 30th goal of the season put Leeds United to the sword, as John Eustace’s men inflicted the Yorkshire team’s first defeat at Elland Road this season, to all but guarantee Rovers’ safety.

With Rovers still licking their wounds after being plastered all over Ashton Gate, following their 5-0 defeat to Bristol City on Wednesday, John Eustace opted for one change to the starting side, as Hayden Carter returned to make up a back three alongside Scott Wharton and skipper, Dom Hyam, with Dilan Markanday the departee who took a place on the bench. There were returns to the bench for Zak Gilsenan and Semir Telalović, but Andrew Moran was unavailable for selection due to a thigh injury.

With the Sky Sports cameras ready and raring to go for this 12:30pm kick-off, Elland Road was bouncing as they smelt blood, hoping to grab the victory that would see them go back top of the pile, as they attempted to capitalise on Leicester City’s 1-0 defeat to Plymouth Argyle on Friday night. Although anticipation built in Yorkshire, it was Rovers who got the game underway, on James Bell’s starting whistle, as they were aiming to bounce back after the disaster in midweek.

It took nine minutes for the hosts to get acquainted with Aynsley Pears as Crysencio Summerville saw his in-swinging free-kick from the byline punched away by the goalkeeper, before Willy Gnonto’s curling effort from outside the box was tipped behind the post as Rovers cleared the subsequent corner.

Rovers continued to dig in deep and frustrate the Whites as the hosts next had a chance in the 26th minute when on-loan Burnley defender, Connor Roberts delivered a deep free-kick that was met by the head of former Chelsea defender, Ethan Ampadu, but the £7m signing couldn’t angle his nod goalwards.

Moments later, Hayden Carter was booked for scything down Summerville just inside the Rovers half as Leeds’ set-piece from deep put pressure on Rovers, before Pears was again called into action to deny Roberts from 25-yards.

With 41 minutes gone and Rovers only having half-chances to stream up field, without testing Illan Meslier, Sammie Szmodics proved Rovers’ one shining light, as he drove Rovers forwards after a Leeds set-piece. After intercepting a pass by the home side’s advanced backline, inside the Rovers half, Szmodics led the charge on his own as he dug out a powerful left-footed effort that seemed destined to curl inside the far-post, but for the outstretched arms of the French shot-stopper as the retreating United defenders cleared their lines.

As the hosts tried to get up the pitch, Tyrhys Dolan was booked for tripping Gnonto on halfway.

Half-time soon approached, despite fury from the stands at only one added minute being allocated by referee James Bell, with the home fans believing it should have been more, due to Rovers being liberal with the time they had on the ball, when it wasn’t live. Despite that, Rovers held strong to see out the half with the scores goalless.

Although Daniel Farke would have been frustrated about the added time, he would have also been agitated that his side had been somewhat wasteful in-front of goal, despite them dominating most of the game. He would have wanted his side to continue their dominance, but also play with more patience & composure.

John Eustace would have been delighted with his side’s defensive display, particularly after midweek. The boss would have wanted his side to continue what they had been doing, but also have more impetus on trying to exploit the counter-attack.

Just before Leeds got the second period underway, Rovers made a change in defence, as Kyle McFadzean came on to replace Scott Wharton.

It took just two minutes for the bookings to reappear as Sondre Tronstad was the latest to see yellow after he brought down Gnonto in the 47th minute.

On the hour mark, in what would normally be a moot point, Sammie Szmodics decided to change his boots to his more ‘prolific’ pair after the ones he was wearing had been ripped in an earlier incident.

With 62 gone, Callum Brittain hooked a deep set-piece into the area as Kyle McFadzean forced Meslier into a stop which rolled out to Joe Rankin-Costello who saw his effort from range narrowly zip past the post.

Two minutes later, Sammie Szmodics broke through down the right-hand channel as he pulled it back across the face of goal as Tyrhys Dolan and Sam Gallagher stretched to turn the ball in at the back-post, but some fine defending from Connor Roberts denied both attackers on the line with a fantastic goal-saving tackle.

In the 65th minute, Leeds came forwards again as Rutter tried to find the net with a left-foot, but Pears managed to pull off a world-class save down to his left to deny the Frenchman.

Leeds soon made a triple change as Sam Byram, Patrick Bamford and Daniel James all came on to add some attacking firepower to the hosts, as Connor Roberts, Georginio Rutter and Ilia Gruev departed.

As the home side continued to push for a goal, Pears was again on-hand to deny the hosts, as the ball fell to Dan James who tried to curl one in from just inside the area, but the ball curled wide of both, the post and the incoming Gnonto as Rovers kept themselves in the game.

With 76 minutes gone, Bamford had his first sniff at goal as he looked to get onto the end of a Gnonto cross, but some good defending by McFadzean put the attacker off as the nod flew over the crossbar.

As 81 minutes struck the clock inside Elland Road, Blackburn Rovers did the unthinkable as talismanic forward, Sammie Szmodics managed to finally get the goal he and all of the Rovers travelling contingency had been longing for as he became the first Rovers player to hit 30 goals in a season since Alan Shearer. Rovers went ‘back-to-basics’ and hit a long goal-kick forwards which Sam Gallagher flicked onto Tyrhys Dolan. The diminutive forward did brilliantly to turn his man before pick out the run of Szmodics with a world-class ball, as the killer in-front of goal did his thing as he calmly curled a first-time finish past Meslier to send the travelling supporters near that goal into a chaotic frenzy as Rovers took a 1-0 lead against all odds and logic.

Minutes later, Rovers made a second change to try and add some fresh legs for what would undoubtedly be a Leeds onslaught. Ben Chrisene was introduced to the fray, taking the place of assister, Tyrhys Dolan.

The yellow card was soon out again as Man of the Match, Aynsley Pears was booked for time-wasting, as Rovers began to show their mettle.

Just after six minutes of added time were raised by the four official, a third Rovers change came amongst Leeds’ unsuccessful huffing and puffing as Semir Telalović replaced the goalscorer, Sammie Szmodics.

Whilst Leeds continued to power forwards to no avail, the 98th minute saw a member of Leeds’ coaching staff red carded after some forceful appeals after Patrick Bamford tumbled down inside the Rovers area, as James Bell waved play on, moments before bringing a momentous afternoon to a close, as Rovers redeemed themselves for their midweek mauling by putting on a world-class spectacle in ‘smash and grab’ football, which all but secured their status as a Championship club again for 2024-25.

I’ve run out of superlatives for the mental fortitude of this team. To go to Bristol City midweek, and then spend the next few days, no doubt, stewing over what was an embarrassing display and then to come out and be as disciplined and work as hard as they did to deny a side who were unbeaten on their own patch until today is outstanding.

All of the players and the staff deserve their flowers for today’s gameplan that has shown that there is still life in this Blackburn Rovers squad, yet. Although Aynsley Pears was – rightfully – the Sky Sports Man of the Match, the broadcaster would have arguably gone bankrupt had they given every player who deserved the award, a trophy, because they would have handed out 11 of them. Although the squad have come under some – at times – deserved criticism this week, they showed their heart and ability to defend that was seen last season in spells, to keep out such a potent side, with all credit due to them, the staff and of course, the loud and proud travelling support who had to fork out a heck of a lot of money to see that.

Although Rovers did put some credible daylight between themselves and the bottom three before the 3pm kick-offs, at time of writing, just after full-time in the 3pms, Rovers have settled in 17th place, moving up to 49 points despite remaining on a negative goal-difference of -14. Despite the chaos of the 3pm kick-offs, Rovers are five-points clear of 22nd placed Huddersfield Town who have 44 points, with three games of the campaign remaining.

Speaking of the remaining games, what would have been a six-pointer is still on the cards as Rovers host Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday 21st April at 12:30pm in another Sky Sports-controlled affair. After that tie, Rovers’ final home game of the season sees Coventry City – still dreaming of a playoff spot – be the final visitors to Ewood Park, this season, as they make the trip on 27th April at 3pm, before the final game of the campaign sees the Blues return to the King Power Stadium, over a year on from their memorable victory, looking to once again burst Leicester City’s bubble on Saturday 4th May at 12:30pm.