Pascal Struijk strikes at the death to rescue point for Leeds to move them out of relegation zone
Jesse Marsch may not want reminding that Ted Lasso also needed a miracle in the final week of the season to avoid Premier League relegation. Should Leeds United pull off a great escape next weekend, the Hollywood moment will be Pascal Struijk’s last-gasp equaliser on Sunday.
Even the scriptwriters of Lasso, the fictional soccer coach from the United States, would struggle to come up with a finale like Struijk’s goal, which sent the Leeds’ bench sprinting down the touchline in celebration. Moments earlier, fans turned on the board and seemed resigned to returning to the Championship.
Struijk’s headed goal gives them a glimmer of hope that their American coach can keep them safe. Their survival will go to the wire against Brentford on Sunday, with Burnley’s two matches determining what they need. The manic celebrations were sparked because the goal could keep them up.
“The players emptied their tanks and got that point, which could wind up being a massive moment for us,” said Marsch. “We’ve given ourselves a chance going into the last match. We need some help but then be ready next weekend to do whatever it takes.”
Earlier, Danny Welbeck’s goal had looked like it would consign Leeds to a fourth successive defeat, with Brighton creating more chances to put the game to bed. There were groans of discontent as well as chants against the club’s decision-makers, who did not bring in players during the January transfer window.
Leeds are now short on numbers, with red cards and reckless tackles ruling out players through suspension and injury. Marsch managed to lift the players he has left at half-time but they were “pretty much on empty” in his words.
The American, however, has brought relentless positivity since taking over from Marcelo Bielsa. The stoppage-time wins against Norwich and Wolves showed his teams should never be written off and he manages to lift his players when it matters.
“We’re alive for the last day, regardless,” added Marsch. “We just have to fight for every point, it gets us a bit closer and shifts the momentum.
“A lot of guys on the roster right now with suspensions and injuries, a lot of guys have to play a lot of minutes and gave everything. I say to them ‘do that, give everything and when you’re done we put the next guy in’. They are fighting for everything and that resolve and mentality makes this team special.
“I think I want the players, when they look at me, to see I believe we can do this. It was about being positive and saying ‘keep pushing’. In those moments you have to believe and have an aggressive mindset to find a way to make a difference and we did that.”
They started creating chances eventually, knowing they would be out of the bottom three with a goal. Raphinha had a free-kick palmed away by Robert Sanchez when it looked like he had equalised. The Brazilian also slid a finish wide when sent through by Rodrigo.
The Brighton keeper showed why he has been in the Spain squad, denying Mateusz Klich twice with his agility, one of his stops coming when he was unsighted until the very last moment.
There still seemed little hope of an equaliser, with supporters singing the name of the legendary Marcelo Bielsa, who Marsch replaced in February to save their season. With the match heading into stoppage-time, it was Joe Gelhardt who created the chance when his tireless running was rewarded with one final chance.
Gelhardt, 20, found a yard of room and lofted a cross to the back post where Struijk headed over the line. Adam Webster attempted to boot the ball away but it was clear it had crossed the line, sparking the wild scenes on the touchline.
“I dont know about out of sight but in the first half we were really strong and maybe could have added the second, which I felt we needed,” said Brighton manager Graham Potter.
“It’s so difficult to control things completely because of the crowd and the situation Leeds are in. People were talking about whether we had anything to play for and we fought for everything.
“It was a hostile environment and the point is fair. It is one of the most hostile you are going to get in England and you have to respect that. The players are disappointed with the lateness of the goal but you have to give Leeds credit, they are fighting for their lives.”