Leeds snatch fresh momentum in relegation battle in draw that feels like a win

Pascal Struijk celebrates his late equaliser for Leeds

The nature of being in a relegation scrap is that goals and points are scarce. In turn, the few goals and points that come your way feel a little bit more valuable. That was certainly how it seemed at Elland Road, at least, when Pascal Struijk’s 92nd-minute header salvaged a draw for Leeds.

It was just a draw – only a 1-1 against an impressive Brighton and Hove Albion side – and no more or less than Leeds really deserved. Jesse Marsch considered his side a little unfortunate not to take more from their second-half onslaught on Robert Sanchez’s goal. They were cut open so often in the first, though, they were lucky not to be further behind.

But when you’re fighting for every inch in the way Elland Road and their team has to at the moment, a stoppage-time equaliser can feel like a late winner. One point can feel like three when three points don’t come around too often. And a draw like the one Leeds snatched at the death feels like more than just a draw when your rivals end the weekend with defeats.

One of the few advantages of being at the wrong end of the table is that you can usually rely on your rivals to lose. Your own slip-ups and mistakes are not always punished by those around you. Only every so often, at most. But that hasn’t always been the case in this season’s dogfight against the drop, especially not for Leeds.

Marsch appeared to have pulled his new employers out of trouble when he picked up 11 points from his first seven games in charge. After the 3-0 win at Watford last month, Leeds were nine clear of the dotted line. Third-bottom Burnley had games in hand but few expected they would win them. Until they did, that is.

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Pascal Struijk celebrates scoring

Everton seemed to be in greater peril than Leeds at the time too, yet picked up 11 points from a possible 18 over the weeks that followed. Though Covid postponements created a slightly false picture of the relegation battle, the swings in momentum since the start of April have been wild, which is to say nothing of Newcastle’s transformation before that.

Those momentum swings over the last month and a half dragged Leeds back into the fight but Marsch will now be hopeful that the latest pulls them out of it. While Burnley lost at Tottenham and a nine-man Everton went down at home to Brentford, Leeds took a point. By helping to break the pattern of recent weeks, it could prove to be the most important point of their season. It could be the difference maker.

“The point shifts the pressure a bit. This is a psychological battle we are in,” Marsch explained afterwards. “Burnley have a match in hand but if you look at the table, they need to get a result. They have two matches to get it.”

Leeds United celebrate with fans after Pascal Struijk scores

Leeds’ destiny is still not in their hands and their -38 goal difference remains a problem. The blow-outs suffered under Marcelo Bielsa – and, it has to be said, under Marsch too – put them at a substantial disadvantage if level with Mike Jackson’s side when all is said and done. Had they lost to Brighton then, barring a 21-goal swing, Leeds could have been relegated in all but name before the next time they kicked a ball.

Instead, Struijk’s equaliser means they will start the final day alive, with a fighting chance of survival. They may even be in control of their own fate if Aston Villa can do them a favour on Thursday evening.

Even if he keeps Leeds up, Marsch has a lot to prove too. Since his appointment, he has taken 12 points from 11 games. That is not relegation form over the course of a whole season but it is not far off it. There have been difficult opponents – the recent stretch against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, for example – but more favourable fixtures too.

The sample size is large enough now to suggest there is work to do. The attacking fluency of Bielsa’s time has been lost slightly for little defensive solidity in exchange at the other end. Wretched luck with injuries has exposed how thin the squad is below a trusted core and that smart summer investment is necessary. Before the late equaliser, chants of ‘sack the board’ were loud and persistent around Elland Road, and were sporadically heard at a lower volume after the final whistle.

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Jesse Marsch gestures to Leeds supporters after salvaging a point against Brighton

Given all that, it would not be entirely surprising if Leeds are scrapping for points at this end of the table next season too. Some points are bigger than others, though, and the release of emotion around Elland Road which met Struijk’s equaliser suggested that this was one which could be huge. In a relegation battle full of shifts in momentum, Leeds have benefitted from the latest and must now hope it is sustained.

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