The season that seems to never end for Leeds

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Time was when Leeds United thought 35 points would put this season out of its misery. It looked like a rough benchmark while Marcelo Bielsa was still the head coach and the club saw it as the threshold for safety after damage-control duty passed to Jesse Marsch at the end of February.

Time was, too, when 35 points seemed to promise genuine protection, clear of a bottom three who were plodding on at a much slower rate than a point a game. But every time Leeds dare to exhale, the division closes in once more. A night game at Crystal Palace had people waking early in the morning, feeling that twang in their stomachs and pensively counting the hours.

Marsched as he wrapped up a visit to Watford a fortnight ago that a pretty-looking Premier League table would be more of a minefield played by the time Leeds again at Selhurst Park yesterday but tight, in his head, cannot have meant quite this tight: four points clear of third-bottom Everton and two clear of 17th-placed Burnley, a team Leeds have intermittently led by eight and nine points during the past month.

Leeds are much less already on the beach than stuck at the airport terminal, teased by empty promises that the plane is about to take off.

Nothing much was flying against Palace last night, and in contemplating the precious pile of results Leeds have stacked up — three wins (two of them thanks to added-time goals) and two draws from five games — it has not been easy to explain exactly how they got here.

Marsch’s side clawed their way through 90 minutes in south London, as limited in their own eyes as those of anyone watching, but there was a goalless draw at the end of it, even though the football served up aged all concerned mercilessly.

While 11 points from a month’s football so late in the piece should have steered Leeds out of the woods, it is clear where the club would have been without the streak they are on.

This season still refuses to swallow them or to let them ease off.

In the search for an attacking game plan, a rhythm or a way of preying on Palace’s weaknesses, Monday’s game gave very few clues away.

The long balls into the channels for Dan James, the battle to keep possession, the absence of a superior midfield base despite Kalvin Phillips playing the full 90 in his first start since early December and the breakdown of attacks before they got going; it would have been some achievement for Palace to have failed to exert control and for much of the evening, it was theirs.

No coach in football has more experience of engaging Patrick Vieira than Marsch. No coach has gone up against him more often. But Marsch, as yet, is in no position to dish out the sort of pasting he inflicted on Vieira when they were coaching the two New York teams in MLS.

Marsch and Vieira spent the days before this match insisting they are not sworn enemies or even enemies at all, despite some talk to the contrary while both were managing in the Big Apple five years ago.

Leeds have no time for petty scores or tenuous sub-plots.

Marsch could see problems in the first half at Selhurst Park as Jean-Phillippe Mateta missed three good chances: one a lob, the second a shinned finish at the far post and the third a header Illan Meslier held. Half-time and Mateusz Klich was withdrawn to make room for Robin Koch a centre-back taking a club in midfield. One way or another, a rejig was called for.

After that followed the attempts to inject something at the other end of the pitch, with Sam Greenwood on for James and Joe Gelhardt on for Rodrigo.

There was nothing so much as a chance for Leeds which looked like nicking a win but the Palace goal which hung in the air all night did not materialise either. Meslier helped to see to that, with two near-post saves from Wilfried Zaha in the same second-half attack.

The best that could be said about Leeds was that the concession which always felt likely to come was staved off. And perhaps, at the end, it was necessary to be able to say that.

What this point amounts to for Leeds remains to be seen.

Thirty-five, as it turns out, has been enough on average to keep a club up during each of the past 10 Premier League seasons. The required tally ran as high as 38 in 2015-16 and as low as 29 last year and there was a stage this season where the bottom three looked like scraping the barrel again, until the pace of the stragglers picked up.

Marsch can draw reassurance from the fact that Leeds, for now, are a team to catch rather than one in pursuit.

“Everyone’s disappointed because we want to play better,” Marsch said. “But I think it’s a really big point. It gets us closer to our ultimate goal. If you’d said to me five games ago that in the next five games we’d get 11 points, I’d have signed on the dotted line.

“It’s a second clean sheet in a row, five unbeaten games, Kalvin getting 90 minutes. We have to take the positives away. I’m very pleased with this point.”

From here, it is a journey into the fire: current leaders Manchester City, who could be playing to hop back ahead of Liverpool, at Elland Road on Saturday evening, fourth-placed Arsenal away the following Sunday and a visit from Chelsea, who are third, three days after that.

Leeds managed a similar schedule beautifully 12 months ago but that was another season, another head coach, another time.

Their record against the top six in 2021-22 is scarily blank and it would be foolhardy to think that a table that changed so much in the fortnight behind them will not do likewise in the two weeks ahead, they step up again and keep themselves in front.

Thirty-five points is a promise of nothing. Thirty-four even less so.

(Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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