Leeds 0-1 Aston Villa: Anwar El Ghazi’s early strike is enough for Villa men as they close the gap on Liverpool and Everton in the race for Europe
Aston Villa shrugged off the absence of captain Jack Grealish with replacement Anwar El Ghazi scoring an early winner against his former manager Marcelo Bielsa.
El Ghazi, who used to play for the iconic Leeds boss at French club Lille, produced a neat finish early on to leave Aston Villa only six points off a Champions League spot with a couple of games in hand.
It was a particularly satisfying moment for the winger who was controversially sent off on his previous visit to Elland Road and represented Villa’s first Premier League win without Grealish since February 2016.
Manager Dean Smith had been unhappy last weekend that news of his skipper’s shin injury had leaked out on social media before their game against Leicester City, with Fantasy Football League players getting the blame after withdrawing him from their teams.
depspite Grealish being unavailable, Smith put another creative England international, Ross Barkley, on the bench with teenager Jacob Ramsey filling in. El Ghazi took up the vacancy on the left of a 4-3-3.
Leeds wouldn’t have been happy to see referee Peter Bankes in charge for the game – he officiated their 3-0 FA Cup defeat at Crawley in January. On the plus side, they had won 3-0 at Villa Park earlier in the season with a hat-trick from Patrick Bamford.
There is history between the two clubs, most notably their clash in 2019 when Marcelo Bielsa sportingly allowed Villa an uncontested goal and El Ghazi was sent off for an elbow, a decision later rescinded as his “victim” Bamford was banned for diving.
Predictably, there was action from the opening whistle. Raphinha flung himself at a cross in the first attack and nearly connected. Villa then appealed for a penalty when the ball struck Luke Ayling’s left arm.
It never looked a goalless game and the Leeds defence was breached after five minutes.
Ramsey squared a pass to Ollie Watkins on the edge of the box and while the striker slipped in shooting, the ball squirted to El Ghazi unmarked on the far side of the penalty area.
The Dutch international did well to bring the unexpected “pass” under control and slip his finish low past Illan Meslier for his seventh goal of the season.
As usual for a Leeds game, both goalkeepers were busy. Emilliano Martinez blocked Tyler Roberts from point blank range and then Meslier tipped over from the exuberant El Ghazi.
El Ghazi was in the mood and another strike from the edge of the box was parried by Meslier.
Leeds’ main outlet was the in-form Raphinha who showed electrifying pace to win a corner. At the set piece, Liam Cooper’s header was straight at Martinez.
The length of time Bielsa is able to maintains his squatting position to gain a pitch-level view is impressive for a 65-year-old.
More than any club, it is a shame fans at Elland Road have been denied the live Leeds experience in their return to season to the Premier League.
They were high-octane again with Raphinha providing the X-factor. John McGinn had to regularly shift across tto try and protect his right-back Ahmed Elmohamady. At times, the pair of them weren’t enough to stop the Brazilian.
Raphinha’s devilish cross after 35 minutes required Martinez to come bravely out of goal and clutch well as Bamford sniffed an opportunity.
His clever corner rolled back to Helder Costa on the edge of the box nearly fooled Villa who were indebted to Watkins blocking the shot. Moments later, Watkins was running at Meslier and testing the French goalkeeper – it was that kind of evening.
Diego Llorente was incensed by a foul from Watkins, rolling around until the Villa player tried to see he was – at which point the Spaniard leapt up remonstrate.
The official let Wakins off with a stern warning but Tyler Roberts and Matt Targett weren’t as fortunate when they squared up after an hour. They both received yellow cards with Mateusz Klich quickly following them into the book for clipping El Ghazi.
The combative Klich must have feared the worst when he then fouled McGinn but Mr Bankes took a common sense approach and didn’t rush for his red.
Leeds are comfortably mid-table without any of the relegation worries of most newly-promoted teams.
They never stopped getting forward trying to level with Bielsa summoning Jack Harrison, Ezgjan Alioski and Pablo Hernandez from the bench but found Martinez in commanding form and confident in catching anything that came into his penalty area.
Bielsa was happy enough to shake El Ghazi at the end. For Smith, he may be no fan of Fantasy Football but protecting a 1-0 win away from home just perfect, with Raphinha heading Leeds’ best late chance into the ground and over.
Villa face bottom club Sheffield United next in midweek. Win that and they’ll have to start talking about Europe.