PRIDE PARK, DERBY — Whenever the play-offs for the Premier League begin, the story is always how much they are worth. When Derby beat West Bromwich Albion at Wembley in 2007, it was £60m. It is now valued at three-and-half times that figure. The question is whether it is worth enough to employ VAR?
The semi-final between Derby and Leeds turned on a penalty that never was. A goal down and outplayed, Derby’s Jayden Bogle appeared to have been brought down by Jack Harrison, whose sublime cross-field pass had given Leeds the advantage.
Frank Lampard thought it a penalty and then, having watched a replay, the Derby manager admitted he was not sure. Kemar Roofe, who had scored the only goal of the evening, went the other way. On the pitch his instincts were that there had been no foul. Afterwards, the striker thought there might have been.
The referee, Craig Pawson, also changed his mind, awarding and then, after speaking to his linesman, overturning the decision.
Lampard would have understood had Pawson not given the penalty. What he objected to was overturning the original decision without “any obvious reason”.
Leeds take control
There were other frustrations plaguing Lampard on the final whistle. This had been his third encounter with Marcelo Bielsa, the classic managerial confrontation between a great player and a great analyst of the game.
For the third time the analyst had won, rather more comfortably than the 1-0 scoreline suggested. Minute by minute, Leeds had taken control of events, squeezing the space from Derby like a python constricting its prey. The young footballers who had taken Derby this far – Mason Mount, Tom Lawrence and Duane Holmes – found themselves stifled.
Then came the counter-punch, a lovely interplay between Harrison and Stuart Dallas on the left wing, one of the passes of the season and a goal.
Bielsa’s reputation in his homeland meant this game was screened live in Argentina. His home city of Rosario would have been presented with proof that, despite Leeds’ dreadful, stuttering finish to the league season, the magic of his coaching is still there.
Lampard holds out hope
Lampard, whose team had lost only one of their previous 12 games, knew this was his chance. He knew it had been blown. “I don’t mind losing in the play-offs but I don’t want to lose not playing the way we can,” he said. “The speed of Leeds’ press means you have to have balls to deal with it.
“I don’t want to say the players were overawed but there were moments when we could have been calmer, could have been better on the ball and we could have made better decisions.
“We have nothing to lose now. We are 1-0 down, people will write us off. The feeling on the pitch was that the game was done – for us, it has to be the opposite of that.’
Then, like many of the players on both sides, he mentioned the Champions League semi-finals as proof of how little first-leg deficits can matter. “We have to take some inspiration from that,” he said. “They don’t come around much but we do have an opportunity to give it a real go.”