At the final whistle Steve Bruce stared disconsolately at the players slumped on the pitch before turning to offer Marcelo Bielsa a polite fist bump. The Leeds manager sensed it was no time for social distancing and immediately placed both hands on his Newcastle counterpart’s shoulders before offering him some, presumably, consolatory words.
After nine Premier League games without a win – and 11 in all competitions – Bruce is enduring the bleakest of midwinters and needs all the support going. Although his side improved in the second half, particularly after Allan Saint-Maximin’s liberation from the bench, they are plunging towards the sort of relegation struggle Leeds look set fair to avoid.
While Bielsa’s side arrived bolstered by the further significant investment from the San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise which will, among other things, enable them to renovate Elland Road, Newcastle remained mired in misery.
As if going into the match without a win in 10 games was not bad enough, Bruce has been refusing to take questions from newspaper journalists whose coverage he perceived as unfair. It was, though, Newcastle’s manager who described his players as “absolutely shite” and made sarcastic, unwise, references to “the Mighty Rafa”. By coincidence Bruce’s predecessor almost immediately placed himself firmly back on the Premier League job market after resigning from his post in China. Rafael Benítez is said to feel he has “unfinished business” with Newcastle but will only return should the club’s mooted Saudi Arabian led takeover finally happen.
With Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s current owner, embroiled in legal action with the Premier League over the collapse of that buyout anything is possible, but the consortium’s so far apparently undimmed interest could soon wane if relegation beckons.
That prospect shifted a fraction closer into view in the 17th minute as Jacob Murphy lost the ball far too easily just inside his own half and Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo combined to conjure a shooting chance on the counterattack which Raphinha revelled in converting.
The Brazilian winger met Rodrigo’s cut-back on the edge of the area and, having taken a steadying touch, shot low and left footed beyond Karl Darlow. Bruce thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his club anorak and stared at the ground.
The Newcastle manager’s sole consolation must have been that there were no fans inside St James’ Park to barrack him. Given the ease with which Bielsa’s players controlled possession and overran his side in a midfield dominated by Kalvin Phillips, the invective echoing from a full Gallowgate End would have hurt.
At one point the home manager scratched his head as if irritated by an insect. Out on the pitch, Leeds were swarming all over their hosts and seemed entirely unfazed by the loss of their central defender Diego Llorente to hamstring trouble after only 10 minutes. Bielsa’s players regrouped seamlessly with Jack Harrison missing a sitter shortly before Raphinha’s goal.
Time after time Leeds dissected Bruce’s five-man rearguard on the break and, had Bamford not occasionally taken one touch too many, they could have all but had a win done and dusted by half-time. Yet once Stuart Dallas had a goal disallowed for handball early in the second half, Bruce’s players raised their game appreciably. When Jamal Lascelles won an important challenge, the scene was set for Jonjo Shelvey and Callum Wilson to work the ball into the path of the advancing Miguel Almirón who delighted in squeezing a shot beneath Illan Meslier.
All too typically Newcastle promptly lost concentration. Having left Harrison unmarked they watched in horror as he caught Raphinha’s cross with the outside of his left foot and the resultant shot crashed in off the inside of a post.
The moment had come for Bruce to re-introduce Saint-Maximin following a two-month Covid-induced absence. The Frenchman made an instant impact, unnerving Leeds and galvanising teammates in equal measure as the game turned ridiculously end-to-end.
Cued up by Saint-Maximin, Jamal Lewis hit the bar and Meslier saved well from Fabian Schar and Shelvey but Leeds remained worthy winners. Goodness knows what the Mighty Rafa made of it.