Leeds United’s run at the top of the Sky Bet Championship is over after Norwich City leapfrogged them with a 3-1 victory in the big game at Elland Road.
The Whites were unlucky to find themselves two down at half-time, but were made to struggle by strong opponents after the break and Patrick Bamford’s injury-time goal was merely a consolation on a disappointing day for United.
A fourth defeat in six league games did not look on the cards as they started on the front foot and, urged on by the biggest crowd of the season, they went at Norwich from the start.
But the visitors rode out the storm, hit back with a couple of sucker punch goals and gained confidence and strength as the game went on, aided by some big decisions going their way.
On another day their goalkeeper, Tim Krul, would have been sent-off as he raced out of his box and missed the ball, taking Tyler Roberts out with a high elbow contact on the Leeds player.
Roberts did manage to lob the ball over the onrushing keeper, but his effort went wide. Referee Stuart Attwell spotted the challenge by Krul, but chose a yellow card instead of a red one. Krul was later fortunate that the officials did not spot his attempted head-butt on Bamford after the final whistle.
Another big decision went against Leeds just before half-time when Luke Ayling put the ball in the net only for the referee to rule a foul on Krul in the build-up.
With both of Norwich’s first half goals going into the net thanks to deflections going their way it added up to a frustrating half.
However, United could have no complaints over losing in the second half as Norwich pressed them all over the field, the mistake count went up substantially from the hosts and they never looked likely to pull off one of their comebacks.
The Whites had looked the most likely to score early on as Mateusz Klich got in an early shot from the edge of the box and Jack Harrison forced the first save from Krul with a low shot.
But the home crowd was briefly silenced as Pontus Jansson lost the ball trying to bring it out of defence and in trying to make amends gave a free-kick away on the edge of the box. Up stepped Mario Vrancic and his strike took a deflection off Adam Forshaw before nestling in the top corner of the net for the crucial opening goal.
Tyler Roberts tried to hit back for the hosts, but saw his shot saved while Ezgjan Alioski was inches wide with a well struck volley at the far post.
Forshaw sent a shot wide from the edge of the box after further good build-up play and Pablo Hernandez sent a half-volley over after a free-kick had only been half cleared.
Despite the score it was all Leeds at this stage and after Krul’s mistimed challenge on Roberts the resulting free-kick came to nothing when the initial shot hit the wall and the follow-up was fired over.
Kemar Roofe headed wide from a chip in the box, but United were left stunned again on 35 minutes as Norwich scored their second goal.
Forshaw lost possession near his own area and Marco Stiepermann teed up Vrancic whose shot was half-blocked only for the ball to fall for Teemu Pukki to have a tap-in to make it 2-0. To compound his initial error Forshaw played Pukki onside as well.
Again, Leeds’ reaction was good as Roofe set off on a brilliant run only to see his shot parried away by Krul.
Norwich could have scored again , however, as Max Aarons was free in the box, but shot over. Vrancic then hit a free-kick just wide.
Leeds still kept attacking as Roofe had two shots blocked and Ayling had the ball in the net only for his effort to be ruled out. But despite their decent approach play they were 2-0 down at the break.
Marcelo Bielsa reacted by making two changes, taking wide men Hernandez and Harrison off to bring on Jack Clarke and Barry Douglas, with Alioski moving from left-back to the wing.
He did not get the reaction he was after, though, as Norwich upped their efforts round the pitch and took a grip at times.
United did have a big shout for a penalty turned down when Roberts was taken out off the ball, with the referee siding with Norwich again, but their only effort of note for half-an-hour after the break was an alioski shot from the edge of the area that was easily saved.
Norwich did a good job of killing time in the game, although Aarons missed a good chance for the visitors after taking the ball off Alioski in the box.
They did make it 3-0 on 78 minutes when Vrancic somehow squeezed the ball in from a narrow angle - the ball going through Kiko Casilla’s legs - after another ricochet fell to a Norwich player and the home crowd knew their side’s time at the top of the table was up.
Klich managed a shot from the edge of the box as Leeds tried to respond, but it could have been worse for them as Emiliano Buendia took the ball off Douglas and fed Onel Hernandez, who shot wide.
Ayling headed wide from a free-kick as the home team did at least keep going to the final whistle. Third sub Bamford hardly had a touch after coming on just after the hour mark, but he suddenly popped up in the box to hit the crossbar with a close range volley. From the resulting corner he headed home to bring some small cheer at least to Leeds.
Leeds head coach Bielsa did not hide his disappointment at the result and blamed himself.
He said: “We can’t say the performance was satisfactory. We couldn’t take advantage of the positive moments we had in the game.
“As we lost the ball in front of our box we made it easier for the opponent to attack.
“It was very hard for us to recover the ball after the first half-an-hour. After we finished the attacks the opponent kept the ball. Usually it’s easier for us to recover the ball and today it was very hard. It’s these three aspects.
“We have good players and we have skilful players and I have to find the right combinations in order to find the good way to attack.
“And as you can see in the last games I haven’t made the right choice because many players play in the offensive positions and in spite of the different combinations we still have the same problems. We need many chances to score.
“So this is the responsibility of the head coach, not the players. And it’s the same thing regarding the defensive strength that we have lost. In order to defend well we have to combine safe recovery of the ball and then make the link between the defence and the attack without risking any dangerous loss.
“In an important segment of this competition we recovered the ball well and could play out. And we have lost this feature and I think I am deeply responsible for it.”
Leeds United 1
Norwich City 3
(Vrancic 5, 78, Pukki 35)
Saturday, February 2, 2019
Sky Bet Championship
Leeds: Casilla, Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski, Forshaw, Harrison (Clarke 45), Klich, Roberts (Bamford 62), Hernandez (Douglas 45), Roofe
Norwich: Krul, Aarons, Zimmerman, Godfrey, Lewis, Trybull (Tettey), Vrancic, Buendia (McLean 84), Stiepermann, Hernandez, Pukki (Rhodes 86).
Referee: Stuart Attwell