Leeds United soared to the summit of the Sky Bet Championship after demonstrating their Premier League credentials with a commanding 5-0 mauling over relegation-threatened Stoke City.
A masterclass from the hosts’ playmakers Helder Costa and Pablo Hernandez condemned the Potters to their heaviest defeat of the season, leaving them perilously positioned outside the relegation zone courtesy of a single point; accompanied by a significantly punctured goal difference.
Stoke boss Michael O’Neill lamented his side’s errors as the visitors’ defensive resolve lasted 44 minutes before Tommy Smith’s naïve lunge on Costa gifted the hosts with a penalty on the stroke of half-time which was coolly converted by Mateusz Klich to take his goal tally up to six for the season.
He said: “We set out to make it difficult for them. I think we did that for right up until half-time and then we give them a leg up. It’s a really poor challenge to give away the penalty, it’s needless and then the game becomes very difficult.
“We concede shortly after half-time and we’re never getting back into the game after that, to be honest. Individually, we couldn’t compete with the tempo that they had collectively and our only saving grace is that we won’t play a team of that calibre between now and the end of the season.”
Hernandez, who came off the bench at half-time, orchestrated Stoke’s second half capitulation by supplying skipper Liam Cooper with an intelligent assist in the 57th minute; the Spaniard crafted space in the opposition box after taking a short corner before pulling back a delicate pass for the centre-half to stroke past Jack Butland with the aid of the post.
The former Valencia man compounded the Potters’ misery in the 72nd minute with a sweeping right-footed effort from the edge of the box after a swift counter-attack down the right, much to the delight of his manager Marcelo Bielsa.
The enigmatic Argentinian manager said: “Pablo had a big impact in the match, he was very intelligent with his placement on the pitch and he assisted with very accurate passes.
“In the first half, it was the difficult for us and the penalty helped. After we scored early in the second half, it made the rest of the match easier.”
United began the second half brightly with Costa striking two minutes after the interval as he ghosted into the box behind the static half-time substitute James Chester to latch onto a neat Barry Douglas through ball before poking his effort past Butland with ease.
Stoke’s dismal defending continued deep into stoppage time as Luke Ayling’s long diagonal ball floated effortlessly over Danny Batth and into the path of Leeds’ leading marksman Patrick Bamford, who struck a ferocious half-volley into the back of the net via ricochets off both posts.
Leeds will look to continue their charge towards the Premier League on Sunday with a trip to play-off hopefuls Swansea City, whilst Stoke will be hoping to avoid exile from the Championship by claiming a much-needed win when they host Birmingham City at the bet365 Stadium this weekend.