As kick-off approached and the traffic gridlock that had ensnared Rafa Benítez and his Everton players intensified, hundreds of Leeds fans emerged from near-stationary cars and coaches. Tired of waiting, they streamed down a slip road leading to Elland Road from the M621 and, ignoring the teeming rain soaking them to the skin, marched towards the stadium.
For the first time since 2004, Elland Road welcomed a full house for a Premier League game and no one wanted motorway congestion to ruin a long dreamed-of afternoon. Once inside, the ground was transformed into a life-affirming wall of noise as supporters waved yellow flags distributed to mark the occasion.
Granted, 8,000 had watched a win against West Brom in May, but after pandemic-induced lockouts exiled the vast majority of supporters when Leeds finally returned to the top tier last year, this was a special day.
“It was very emotional to play in front of the fans again,” said Marcelo Bielsa. “It made us very happy.”
Any fears the football itself would be an anticlimax were swiftly allayed as a breathlessly brilliant contest choreographed by two of the finest coaches of their generation unfolded.
At times the midfield seemed as congested as West Yorkshire’s roads. Indeed, judging by the ferocity of some of the tackles tempers were in danger of overheating as badly as a few car engines stuck in the earlier jams. At one point Jordan Pickford had to separate the warring Yerry Mina and Patrick Bamford.
But an outstanding performance from Everton’s Demarai Gray was already raising the tone when Dominic Calvert-Lewin ghosted in on Liam Cooper’s blind-side and Leeds’s captain almost pulled the striker’s shirt off.
Mateusz Klich slots in Leeds’s first equaliser. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images
A penalty was awarded after recourse to VAR and despite taking a daringly short run-up Calvert-Lewin’s kick evaded Illan Meslier’s reach.
Unbowed, the Leeds supporters upped the decibel level and the players responded with a fine goal when the otherwise often distracted Bamford pickpocketed Michael Keane and supplied Mateusz Klich with a clever reverse pass. All that remained was for Klich – deployed in the hole in Leeds’s 3-3-1-3 formation – to accelerate into the area before dinking the ball beyond the advancing Pickford.
That delicate chip seemed emblematic of the subtlety of Klich’s play as he sashayed through the sometimes surprisingly large gaps between Everton’s midfield and central defenders. Small wonder Benítez spent much of the first half filling his notebook with apparently urgent observations as his side initially failed to look entirely comfortable alternating between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2.
Gray, though, always appeared capable of disrupting Leeds’s gameplan and, sure enough, the former Bayer Leverkusen winger restored Everton’s lead early in the second half. After collecting a fine pass from the increasingly influential Abdoulaye Doucouré he conjured an opening by shifting the ball on to his less favoured left foot and arrowing a fabulous low, angled shot beyond Meslier.
“Everyone can see Demarai’s doing well,” said Benítez. “I’m really pleased. Little by little we had more chances and more control and we could have won. But we were also under pressure from a really good team and had to fight for every ball.”
Although Leeds enjoyed considerable possession, Everton menaced persistently on the counterattack. Indeed, but for some excellent goalkeeping by Meslier, Calvert-Lewis would have had a hat-trick by the hour mark.
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The moment had come for Kalvin Phillips to remind everyone why he was so important to England this summer and the Leeds midfielder did not disappoint as he lofted a splendid ball into the area. Cooper laid it off to the hitherto isolated Raphinha who, finally seizing the spotlight, curled a sumptuous yet venomous low left-foot shot beyond the unsighted Pickford.
All that remained was for Bielsa and Benítez to share the warmest of post-match, pitch-side chats.