Leeds rely on unlikely hero to strike key blow in relegation battle
Junior Firpo struck a second-half winner as Leeds beat Premier League relegation rivals Southampton 1-0 to climb out of the bottom three.
Left-back Firpo’s first top-flight goal halted Leeds’ 10-game winless league run and ensured a winning start for new boss Javi Gracia in his first game in charge.
Leeds appointed former Watford manager Gracia on Tuesday after last week’s defeat at Everton left them in the relegation zone and his side responded with their first league win since November.
There had been the prospect of Leeds’ former boss Jesse Marsch returning to Elland Road in charge of Southampton for this key relegation match.
But talks between the south-coast club and the American broke down last week and the Saints then won at Chelsea before appointing interim boss Ruben Selles until the summer.
Leeds had slipped into the bottom three after a dismal display at Everton last week and the first-half action was typical of a crunch relegation encounter.
The home side were roared on by an anxious full house and it was they who forced the issue. But for all their huffing and puffing they rarely threatened Southampton goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.
Brenden Aaronson and Jack Harrison pulled efforts wide after promising moves for Leeds, while Stuart Armstrong fluffed the Saints’ best chance after cutting past Luke Ayling into the penalty area.
Saints striker Paul Onuachu forced Illan Meslier into the game’s first real save with a curling shot in the 39th minute and Leeds midfielder Weston McKennie blazed over from 12 yards out.
Leeds’ loud appeals for a penalty were ignored by referee Peter Bankes inside the opening minute of the second period after Patrick Bamford went to ground under Jan Bednarek’s challenge.
The home faithful increased the volume as Leeds pinned the visitors in their own half, but Southampton remained organised and dogged opposition.
James Ward-Prowse, who equalled Jason Dodd’s record of 329 Premier League appearances for Southampton, fired straight at Meslier to relieve some of the pressure.
Saints substitute Kyle Walker-Peters summed up his side’s collective spirit moments after stepping into the action when blocking Crysencio Summerville’s shot inside the penalty area.
But Saints’ stubborn defence was finally breached in the 77th minute. Harrison’s clever backheel set Firpo free in the area and the left-back scored his first Premier League goal by squeezing a low shot under Bazunu.
Summerville spurned a chance to kill the game in added time when he fired wide, but Leeds held on to send Southampton to a 16th league defeat of the season and winless at Elland Road since 1998.