LEEDS, England — Elland Road had waited 19 years for a Premier League clash between Leeds United and Manchester United in front of supporters. If the world was wondering what all the fuss was about, the teams delivered a classic encounter that ended with a 4-2 win for Ralf Rangnick’s visitors on Sunday.
This game showed the good, the bad and the ugly of this bitter rivalry, with goals, end-to-end excitement and a passionate, noisy atmosphere, as well as nine yellow cards issued by referee Paul Tierney and a late confrontation involving both sets of players that saw Rangnick run onto the pitch to intervene.
And there were also unsavory scenes off the pitch, with objects thrown at various Man United goal scorers — Anthony Elanga was hit on the head — and an array of insulting chants from both sets of supporters.
There were instances of Leeds supporters singing about the Munich disaster, a 1958 plane crash in which eight Man United players were killed, and waving arms to mimic an aeroplane. The away supporters responded with songs about two Leeds fans who were stabbed to death in Istanbul prior to a fixture against Galatasaray in 2000.
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This, sadly, is the reality of a Leeds-Man United rivalry that was in cold storage for so long. While the clubs did meet in the league last season, following Leeds’s promotion from the Championship in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic ensured that games at Old Trafford and Elland Road were played behind closed doors.
And so, the first Elland Road meeting with fans saw 900 police on duty, a record number for a Premier League fixture. It has become the norm that Man United are subjected to more hostility when they visit Leeds than at Liverpool or Manchester City.
There is a historical regional rivalry dating back to the 15th century Wars of the Roses between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but in modern-day terms, the clubs do not share a city and both have closer geographical rivals.
In football terms, the enmity stems more from Leeds supporters’ long-standing grievance that their great team of the 1960s and 1970s never received the acclaim they perceive to have been showered on more glamorous Man United sides.
Moreover, Leeds have never forgiven Eric Cantona for moving to Old Trafford in 1992. The French forward, who had inspired Leeds’ title glory at Man United’s expense the previous season, went on to win the Premier League four times and become a legend across the Pennines, a range of mountains and hills that separate the two cities.
In this latest meeting, played out in driving rain, the sheer volume of noise and backing for the home team clearly wrong-footed Man United’s players in the early stages. It took time for Rangnick’s side to settle in a game that would prove to be a severe test of their resolve and battling spirit.
Initially, the response was positive as Harry Maguire responded to negative headlines about his hold on the captain’s armband by scoring his first league goal of the season. The header from a Luke Shaw corner ended a run of 139 such set pieces without success and, when Bruno Fernandes doubled the lead just before half-time, the points looked safe.
However, the desire of Man United’s players has rightly been questioned and, when Leeds scored twice in the space of 58 seconds at the start of the second half through Rodrigo and Raphinha, the visitors were back under the microscope.
Would they respond positively or, again, shrink in the face of a challenge and throw away crucial points? Courtesy of goals from substitutes Fred and Elanga, a crucial step toward a top-four finish was achieved and the performance will stand Man United in good stead for upcoming trips to Atletico Madrid in Europe, as well Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal in the league .
« It took us 15 minutes to get control of the game but then we started to play well; at half time we were fully aware that we had to be on the front foot, but we conceded two goals in two minutes and that changed the whole game obviously, » Rangnick told BBC Sport. « The atmosphere was amazing but we showed some maturity and kept our heads. »
Maguire, Shaw and Scott McTominay inspired teammates with their commitment, while Jadon Sancho, taunted by Leeds fans with chants about letting England down with his Euro 2020 final penalty shootout miss, registered assists for Fernandes and Fred in one of his best performances since arriving from Borussia Dortmund.
« We had to fight back and stick together, » Maguire said. « We knew it was a tough place to come, but we knew we had qualities and could hurt them. We said at half-time we needed to score more in the second half and we managed to do that. »
As for the home side, Marcelo Bielsa’s side again played on the front foot and got their rewards, but they also continue to leave the back door unlocked; both goals Leeds conceded in the second half were down to failures to repel counter-attacks. However, the Elland Road atmosphere, as well as their readiness to attack, should be enough to keep them up.