Stakes are high as Leeds United gear up to take on rivals

Luke Ayling chases after the ball with Luke Freeman in Leeds United's defeat at QPR.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Luke Ayling chases after the ball with Luke Freeman in Leeds United's defeat at QPR. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

While in some respects last night’s game against QPR could be seen as a free hit missed for Leeds United as they played their catch up match the stakes are clearly high as their big week concludes with another sell-out clash at Elland Road on Friday.

Victory for the Whites over West Brom can put some serious distance between the teams and almost make it a three-way race for promotion.

It does not look like Norwich or Sheffield United are going to fall away anytime soon, based on their strong displays in the last two weeks when they followed up big margin victories with huge successes against fellow promotion contenders. But Leeds have the chance to move seven points clear of the fourth-placed Baggies.

Of course, if things go wrong they could be only one ahead of West Brom – illustrating just how important Friday’s pivotal fixture is.

A repeat of the performance against Norwich in the last really huge game at Elland Road will leave serious doubts about United’s ability to clinch promotion and they will also have to perform better than in their previous meeting with the Baggies when beaten 4-1 in November.

West Brom got their tactics spot on that night, using a counter attacking style to pick off a Leeds team that made too many mistakes.

Other teams since have tried to adopt the same tactics with varying results, but they do not always have the talented attacking players that the Midlands club have at their disposal.

Indeed on paper West Brom do have the better players, especially with top scorer Kemar Roofe missing for Leeds along with exciting young talent Jack Clarke. United have also lacked a bit of creativity at times in recent games with the loss of Samuel Saiz kicking in now after he was not replaced in the transfer window.

Countless times in recent matches they have worked themselves into great positions only to fail to deliver with a poor cross, an overhit or underhit pass at a crucial time.

Tactically Marcelo Bielsa’s men are still dominating possession, but their end product has been sadly lacking and as a result the 1-0 QPR defeat has been coming. Quite how the head coach solves this is a difficult question with the lack of alternatives at his disposal.

There has been a lack of sharpness, although after last night’s game Bielsa disputed that his players were tired.

He said: “You can see this team has lots of energy. What our team has shown in every game is we have an excess of energy.

“If there’s one thing this team doesn’t lack, it’s energy.

“We didn’t take advantage of the first half. In our best moment we had Liam Cooper off so we couldn’t dominate as we had been doing.

“In the first five minutes they (QPR) had five good minutes with energy and it was the same situation at the beginning of the second half. They scored the goal and from that moment on the game changed. It was not as natural as it was before.

“You know that this result is frustrating. We can’t hide the points we lost here.”

Bielsa cut a dejected figure after the match, but now has to pick his players up for the most important game of his time at Leeds.

He has few options to freshen up the attack, but has decisions to make elsewhere in the team where he could restore Gaetano Berardi and Barry Douglas to their full-back positions after their recovery from injury.

He may go with a back three if West Brom field two strikers as they have done in many games this season and this could be the way back in for Berardi following his four months out with a ruptured hamstring while Stuart Dallas is in contention to come in on the wing or as a wing-back.