Leeds United moved a step closer to ending their 16-year Premier League absence, as a thumping 5-0 win over struggling Stoke City sent them back to the top of the Championship.
Goals either side of half-time set the platform, as Mateusz Klich stroked in from the penalty spot at the end of a dominant first period before Helder Costa celebrated his permanent deal with a second just after the break to finish off a slick move.
Liam Cooper slammed in the third from inside the box shortly after as Leeds took control, and Pablo Hernandez’s wonderfully precise effort from the edge of the area ended any Stoke hopes.
Patrick Bamford swiped in the fifth off both posts in added time to deliver a win that moved Leeds above West Brom and established a six-point gap on in-form Brentford in third, with four games left to play.
It was a chastening evening for Michael O’Neill’s Stoke, who saw spirited defensive work undone when Tommy Smith lunged in on Costa to give away the spot-kick, and they failed to mount a meaningful challenge to the hosts throughout.
While Leeds fans can look forward to league visits to Anfield and Old Trafford next season if they earn a maximum of seven more points, Stoke must contemplate the possibility of exiting the Championship at the other end of the table, as they sit just a point and a place above the relegation zone.
Determination to see out the job from Leeds
Marcelo Bielsa’s side slumped to defeats by struggling Wigan and Ipswich within a four-game winless run at the end of last season as their campaign unravelled, but this performance showed a determination not to allow this year’s promotion bid to fade away.
Defeat by Cardiff and a draw with lowly Luton showed chinks in Leeds’ armour since the restart of the season following the coronavirus pandemic, but doubts about their character were shrugged off in a performance of patience to obtain the lead and then ruthlessness to build on it.
Stoke set up to contain with a solid back five but Leeds’ relentless forward thrusts still opened up chances; Bamford had his clipped effort cleared off the line and Tyler Roberts’ follow-up was bravely blocked by Danny Batth.
Smith’s wild lunge on Costa handed Leeds a chance from the spot which Klich converted with ice-cold precision and Leeds moved up a gear after the restart as Costa caught the defence napping to slot home.
They were unlucky not to be completely out of sight as Bamford hit the bar and forced a smart near-post save from Jack Butland, while Kalvin Phillips fizzed a shot over from 18 yards.
Cooper’s third before the hour mark was definitive, smashing in off the post after Hernandez crept in behind the Stoke defence, and the provider turned scorer to sidefoot the killer fourth as Bielsa’s Whites turned on the style.
The visitors had a couple of chances for a consolation as Leeds loosened their grip with the game won, in particular James McClean firing over the top before Bamford crowned the hosts’ performance, adding a fifth with the final kick of the game.
Leeds travel to play-off hopefuls Swansea on Sunday, and also face Derby in their final four games as well as Stoke’s relegation rivals Barnsley and Charlton.
The Potters have a tricky final quartet of matches as they take on promotion hopefuls Brentford and Nottingham Forest, and face a trip to Bristol City following Sunday’s visit of fellow strugglers Birmingham City.
Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa:
“Every match is a new story. What happened in the previous game is not definitive for the next one. Safety and confidence are not linked 100% with the previous result.
“It was a positive performance. The manager always values a positive impact.
“Being able to score at the end of the first half was very important. In the second half our early goal made it much easier for us, but in any case it was an exaggerated result.”
Stoke boss Michael O’Neill:
“I’d be very surprised if they don’t go up. They’re the best team we’ve played. We couldn’t deal with them physically.
“(Bielsa) has done an amazing job. Two years of work here and you can see that in the team.
“They’re hungry players. That’s key and we are a long, long way from where they are. It will take time to change that.
“Tonight you saw the difference between a team at the top and one which for two seasons has been at the bottom end of the table, a long way off where they need to be.
“We gave a decent account in the first half, but you can’t give them a leg up, which we did with the penalty. Once behind, it was always tough.”