Daniel Farke's trust in Joel Piroe pays off as Leeds United keep their nerve to beat Preston
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The Whites manager admitted his side had not been at their best, but the way they stuck to their task pleased him as they earned the reward of an injury-time penalty winner scored by substitute Joel Piroe.
Victory was thoroughly deserved, however, and there was some justice in it being a spot kick winner against opponents who spoiled at every turn and were lucky to keep 11 men on the pitch.
Referee David Webb was in danger of losing control of the match after his strange decisions, particularly with yellow cards, and lack of protection for the home players in the face of near assaults in some cases.
He had home fans chanting he was not fit to referee, but in the end his decision won it for United and there was further irony in this after it was Ryan Ledson that stuck his arm out inside the area with the ball bouncing up to hit it.
Not long before Ledson could have been red carded for an awful challenge on Iliev Gruev with the official choosing yellow instead.
Leeds boss Farke acknowledged that Preston had used tactics to spoil the game, though stopped short of criticising them, and was happy with the way his players handled the provocation.
He said: "These type of wins are the best type of wins.
"We’ve had many electrifying wins with lots of goals, games when it was done at half-time and we only had to speak about how great we were.
“But to win games like this, when you have some problems in the first half to find your level – we started a bit too slow with not enough aggression – to fight yourself minute to minute into the game, to get a hard-fought but deserved win, these are the best moments.
“They're season-defining moments, important for the mood and the confidence. I love when we're there with champagne football, scoring goal after goal, but these type of wins for me are the most enjoyable.
“Credit to Preston, they played with intensity, structured very well, experienced, they know what to do, to be there with a nasty foul to provoke us.
“I don't accuse them, it's what experienced sides do. Going down to give themselves a moment to recover and break the rhythm.
“It was a long time before the first yellow for time wasting. It was important we kept our nerve, stayed cool, played with our tempo and this is what we did. For that I think it was a well deserved win."
Farke revealed that he he had sent on an instruction for Piroe to take the vital late penalty after it looked like Patrick Bamford was lining it up and after Crysencio Summerville had failed to score with the last spot kick awarded to the team.
He explained: "It was a bit difficult because Joel is normally our main taker and sometimes when you're just substituted in you don't feel that confident.
“Cree is one of the players on the team sheet before the game, but he also missed the last penalty.
“It was important for me that Joel gave a sign he was ready to take it, one of our best finishers and normally ice cold. After he gave the sign he was willing to take the responsibility I was 100 per cent sure he would score.
“Thank God he repaid my trust. He's one of my most important players.
“We have 46 league games, it's normal you don't play every second and you have to help from the bench but Joel is still a very important player and I was sure he would finish this situation."
Leeds had to recover from a shock start of coconceding after just 65 seconds when they failed to deal with a free-kick into the box and Will Keane finished from close range after Liam Millar had fired the ball across.
They were soon level, however, as Gruev made space well in midfield, the ball was moved on by Summerville to overlapping left-back Junior Firpo and he provided the perfect cross for Dan James to head home his tenth goal of the season.
Preston were initially bright before retreating to get their spoiling game out and managed a second – and final – shot on target in the tenth minute as Millar's shot had to be tipped over by Illan Meslier.
While it was no complete domination the rest of the game was all about Leeds attacks. Bamford latched onto a weak headed back pass and got to the ball before keeper Dai Cornell only to run out of room in a tight space. Summerville hit a shot over and Firpo sent a 20-yard free-kick over.
A superb cross from James picked out Bamford in the area, but he could not put enough power behind his header and it was easily saved.
The best chance for a second goal came just before half-time as Rutter got free in the box to meet a Gruev corner only to send the ball over with the goal gaping.
Leeds' best spell came in the first 10 minutes of the second half when they were unlucky not to wrap the points up.
First, Rutter sent a shot into the side netting after fantastic play down the left by Summerville, then Bamford latched onto a through ball, but fired over from the edge of the box.
A minute later James showed all his pace to get to the ball just ahead of the onrushing Cornell and after a half-block Bamford's goalbound shot was stopped by back tracking defender Liam Lindsay.
The ever dangerous James cottoned onto a loose ball soon after and his instant chip beat the keeper only to be unlucky to land on top of the net instead of inside it.
Preston were hanging on at this stage and that was when the worst of the time wasting tactics came out as they broke up play. It became more of a fight game for the remainder and although the home team were rarely threatened, apart from a few set pieces that came to nothing, they struggled to create many more clear chances as it was hard to get free of players who wrestled as much as competed.
Attention now switched to how many cards were going to be shown by the official. It ended up being 10 – four to Leeds players – after he was far too lenient earlier in the game. Running battles began to surface round the pitch as the match was close to boiling point especially after the bad tackle on Gruev and a push on Archie Gray that went unpunished yet saw him sent into the advertising boards.
Leeds continued to pin their opponents back, but after a weak Piroe shot was easily saved and another sub, Sam Byram, send a glancing header wide, it looked like they were going to have to settle for a frustrating point.
Big shouts for a penalty fell on deaf ears after Rutter – who had earlier been booked for diving – was sent sprawling in the area.
But a spot kick was awarded in the fourth minute of added time after Ledson's handball when he had spread his arms wide to control a bouncing ball after Joe Rodon had headed on into the box. And Piroe had the final word on this feisty clash.
(James 6, Piroe 90+4)
Preston North End 1
Sunday, January 21, 2024
Sky Bet Championship
Leeds: Meslier; Gray, Rodon, Ampadu, Firpo (Byram 77); Gruev, Kamara (Piroe 77); James, Rutter (Joseph 90+8), Summerville (Cooper 90+6); Bamford.
Preston: Cornell; Potts, Lindsay, Hughes, McCann (Ledson 69); Storey, Whiteman, Frokjaer-Jensen (Woodburn 90), Millar (Browne 77); Jakobsen (Brady 77), Keane (Stewart 77).
Referee: David Webb