Dreadful, brilliant, touched by God – just another night for Leeds United

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Molineux was the stadium where Souleymane Doukara turned into Diego Maradona for the day, so when in Wolverhampton, believe in miracles. Leeds United have prayed for them and received them this past week, protected by whoever it was who went into bat for them up above. Divine intervention and no mistake, plucking the club out of the fire.

At this rate, the deathbed Jesse Marsch talked about after Joe Gelhardt’s winner against Norwich City last Sunday will be just around the corner. However much emotion he invested in that 94th-minute goal, it was child’s play compared to the carnage at Wolverhampton Wanderers last night. Where to start? Pass. Where to finish? With Luke Ayling’s half-volley on 91 minutes — the touch of a man who rarely scores, so keeps them special when he does. All that went before it became footnotes of diminishing importance. The result. Only the result. Everything else for another day.

Twice in a week Leeds have looked gravely wounded, like a team beyond repair. Twice they have found a rope to hold onto, just when the last of the lifeboats seemed to have sailed. One-all at home to Norwich City, 2-0 down away to Wolves; those are the capitulations-in-waiting that drag a season to its knees when a club are toiling as much as Leeds have toiled. Winning both might be the explosion that sinks three of the teams below them in the Premier League — not yet out of the woods but able to see the light at last.

It was easy to imagine that somewhere in South America, Marcelo Bielsa might be uttering a gentle “bueno”. No one wanted the worst to happen to Leeds, and him least of all. The last half-hour at Molineux yesterday — nonsensical drama in a nonsensical game — was what this squad were taught to be almost four years ago: brave, ambitious and impervious to defeatism.

Everything hinged on a red card shown to Raul Jimenez — a second bookable offence that stopped Wolves from cantering calmly home from 2-0 up — but Leeds took a match that suited their hosts and made it a match that suited them. Jesse Marsch willed the winning goal to come. A chance which Dan James so nearly tucked away just before Ayling scored left Marsch beating the air, with nothing around him to actually smash. But in injury time, and six days on from Gelhardt’s magical finish, it happened again.

The scenes on the pitch at full-time told a large part of the story of the game. Patrick Bamford hobbled about with a smile on his face. In the first half, he was pictured on the bench in tears after straining a foot stretching for a ball on the edge of Wolves’ box, no sooner back than injured again. Illan Meslier hobbled on a sore ankle, damage that had forced his substitution after half-time and forced him to miss his first minutes of the season. In a year of unfathomable absences at Leeds, injury had caught up with the last man standing.

Mateusz Klich’s face was smashed to bits, badly bruised in a collision with Robin Koch. Stuart Dallas moved as delicately as he could on the painful shin that asked him to grit his teeth and bear it for the last 15 minutes of the game, minus any remaining substitutions. Diego Llorente tried not to aggravate the back spasm that took him from the field with almost an hour to go. Over 90 minutes, Leeds’ experience of Wolverhampton got closer and closer to Stalingrad, but there and then none of the battered contingent cared.

Wolves had it all in their hands for so long, but in their current guise they are not built for the equivalent of a basketball game or a match so wild. As it grew more chaotic, it was necessary to forget everything that was said about this fixture beforehand: that first goal would win, that 1-0 was generally enough for Wolves, that the nous of their defense would strangle Leeds if Bruno Lage’s side got a firm hold of them. Marsch said he had told his squad that “if Wolves score first, they’re virtually unbeatable”. The first half in isolation said as much, a period where Leeds strayed from mediocre to indescribably awful.

Bamford left the field after 22 minutes, distraught as he sat on the bench, and Leeds lost the plot as they lost him, unable to link their back line with their midfield or their midfield with the attacking players in front of them. Jonny and Francisco Trincao scored near-identical goals, running in unimpeded to shoot across Illan Meslier after Wolves carved Leeds up out wide. Marsch had already used two substitutes and an extra concussion replacement for Klich and restrained himself from changing anything else at half-time. An alteration then would have left him without a goalkeeper when Jimenez dived in on Meslier in the 53rd minute.

Lage disputed the decision to award Jimenez a second yellow card but his lunging challenge, out on the right wing in pursuit of a pass he had little chance of controlling, was loose, aggressive and got nothing of the ball. Marsch did not deny that the dismissal turned the game in an instant but it still required Leeds to score three times against a Wolves team who don’t make a habit of allowing themselves to look like a shambles. Moreover, it left Marsch with no choice but to replace Meslier with Kristoffer Klaesson, a 21-year-old with no track record in the Premier League.

Like Leeds with Bamford in the first half, losing Jimenez turned Lage’s team into a wobbly Jenga tower. Harrison replied first in the 63rd minute after two prior attempts by Leeds to force the ball over the line. Rodrigo brought the game back to 2-2 three minutes later by dancing through a defense which had conceded 23 times before last night but, as the impetus swung, looked like they had been thrown together as a dare. There were confrontations on the pitch, scuffles on the touchline, a clash between the dugouts which Klich got in the middle of — apparently deducing that the damage to his face had already been done. Not a single person in Molineux entered the last 10 minutes thinking the game did not have a fifth goal in it.

Marsch thought he had it when Harrison crossed low to James, but Saiss stuck out a toe to send the ball behind. Wolves, though, were in panic mode defensively and in the first minute of injury time a foul on the right made them face up to a free kick they did not want to defend. The ball hung around in front of goal long enough for Ayling to bring it down and smash a boot through it. It was Gelhardt all over again as a mass of white shirts sprinted to the far side of the field. Kevin Friend, a referee whose night refused to ease off, booked one of Leeds’ remaining substitutes for joining in — the least meaningful telling-off in history.

“I like being the underdog,” Marsch said. “I like having to fight for things. I like not taking things for granted. I like having my back against the wall. I don’t know why, but it’s what I identify with.” And in that respect, he has come to the right place. Four injuries in one night; 2-0 down and with more than half an hour to go and nowhere else left to turn; helped immeasurably by a red card but, more than anything, helped by the nerve of a squad who do not want to sell the club out. It was dreadful, it was brilliant, it was soul-destroying, it was touched by God. Once again, it was Leeds.

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