For a few glorious minutes, Leeds United fans could bathe in the glory of leading against the champions of Europe and dare to dream of a trip to Wembley. However, the opening minute of the second half highlighted the gulf in class and quality between the very peak of the game, and the middle ranks of the second tier of English football.
No doubt with the harsh words of Rafa Benietez ringing in their ears, and mindful of how they had been set upon at the start of the game, Chelsea capitalised on a sloppy start to the second period to cancel out the lead that the Whites had fought so hard to establish.
Once Juan Mata’s shot escaped the grasp of Jamie Ashdown in the United goal, one could sense that the game was up, and despite a great show of spirit from the men in White, a lack of real quality was always apparent. When Branislav Ivanovic headed Chelsea into the lead in the 64th minute and Victor Moses added a third a minute later, Leeds United’s Capital One Cup campaign was done and dusted. The gloss that Chelsea added to the score line, with goals from Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres, was harsh on Neil Warnock’s side and left a bitter taste of humiliation that the performance on the night did not deserve.
The visit of Chelsea for the first time in eight years saw Elland Road packed to the rafters, or as full as a combination of West Yorkshire Police and a corporate hospitality reduced East Stand Upper would allow. For both sides, the mutual antipathy which has lain dormant for almost a decade had built up over the last couple of weeks. With the atmosphere crackling with animosity, there was almost an air of palpable tension. Chelsea, "fresh" from gathering nothing but air-miles from their World Club Cup jaunt to Japan, were hoping to avoid a humiliation similar to that meted out to Arsenal last week at the hands of plucky Bradford City. For Leeds, there was a real optimism that seeing of the Blues could see the road to Wembley open up invitingly, with no "big" names remaining in the competition.
For Rafa Benietez and his Chelsea side, defeat was not an option. Missing John Terry through injury, Gary Cahill and Ramires through suspension and Daniel Sturridge through a possible move to Liverpool, they lined up with almost their strongest available line up. Frank Lampard led the side and a strong midfield which saw a debut for Marko Marin on the right, with Mata and Oscar "making up the numbers" in the middle of the park. Torres led the line with Moses joining the attack when required.
Leeds brought back Jason Pearce for the cup-tied Alan Tate and rested Paddy Kenny with Jamie Ashdown resuming his role as cup keeper. In midfield Michael Brown was brought in to replace David Norris, with the veteran midfielder expected to produce his usual brand of psychotic casual violence.
It was an astute move by Neil Warnock to use Brown in such a way against these foreign fancy dans in the Chelsea midfield. From the kick off Leeds tore into their opponents, Brown was clattering everyone in sight and making the most of every challenge against him, one spectacular dive earning a giggle from Frank Lampard.
The first half wasn’t that pretty, Chelsea looked a real threat every time they went forward, Marin and Mata in particular looking sharp. Leeds though defended manfully and were thankful for a couple of fine saves by Jamie Ashdown who was twice forced into low sprawling saves, his strong arms pushing the ball away to safety.
In attack Leeds laboured to make an impression. The pace of their attacks was stilted and lacked any real quality on a consistent enough basis to cause Chelsea any real scares. That was until the 37th minute when Leeds showed that when they could get it right, they could be devastating. A lazy attempt at a clipped ball over the top of the Leeds defence by David Luiz saw his entire team caught moving forward, and Leeds went for the jugular. Michael Tonge broke quickly, releasing the ball on halfway to the flying Jerome Thomas. The loanee from West Brom produced a pass which was a carbon copy of his assist on Saturday against Ipswich. This time it wasn’t Paul Green but Luciano Becchio who was the recipient and the Argentinean striker deftly diverted the ball past a flat footed Petr Cech just inside the post and into the net to lift the roof off Elland Road.
For Leeds it was now imperative that they went into the interval in front, and that they did was again down to Ashdown, the keeper getting down low to his left to push away a wonderfully dipping and swerving free kick from Lampard. At the other end Lees almost doubled United’s lead, heading a Diouf free kick just over the bar.
The Leeds fans greeted the half time whistle with cheers of joy and relief. If only the game could have ended there, we would of all gone home happy. As it was, Leeds were still digesting the enormity of what they were on the brink of achieving as they came out for the second half. Green and Tonge gave the ball away straight from the kick off and handed Chelsea a way back into the game. It was one they accepted gratefully and once they had a lifeline they were not going to hand it back.
Defeat to the reigning European champions (although that crown has recently been given up with a whimper) marks not only the end of the League Cup run, but the end of the ownership of Leeds United by Ken Bates. By Friday he will be chairman in name only, with GFH Capital holding the power and more importantly the purse strings. With just 13 days until the opening of the transfer window and if Leeds United can maintain their recent form in the league, a tough task with 4 games over the Christmas period against decent sides, then the new owners have an excellent possibility of adding that little bit of quality that can make all the difference in the Championship. That will make occasions like Tuesday and not the result a regular occurrence at Elland Road.