Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Can Leeds blunt the Blades in the biggest game of the Championship season?

Posted on 15 March 2019 by Peter White

The stage is set for arguably the biggest game in the Championship season so far as Leeds United entertain promotion-rivals Sheffield United at Elland Road this Saturday lunchtime.

The fixture has been earmarked by many as the most significant game in Leeds’s recent history, including stalwart defender Pontus Jansson who has described it as the “biggest game of our lives”.

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Leeds United defender Pontus Jansson has acknowledged the significance of Saturday’s match.

The two sides sit side-by-side in the league table, with the Whites currently just two points ahead of their Yorkshire counterparts in second, who themselves are only two points behind league leaders Norwich City.

With only eight games left to play after this weekend’s encounter, several Leeds players, including Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez, have acknowledged the weight riding on the game as they aim to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004.

Head coach Marcelo Bielsa, in typical pragmatic fashion, has played down the occasion as just another game in a series of important Championship games.

In a short press conference held at Thorp Arch yesterday – serving as an indication of his desire to play down the hype – he said: “All wins are important and no win is more important than another at this moment. The analysis shows that it is not crucial but that it doesn’t mean we won’t see it as crucial.”

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Head Coach Marcelo Bielsa has been quick to quell the hype surrounding Saturday’s game.

However, Jansson – in familiar gladiator-like fashion – seems to have assured the Elland Road faithful that members of the playing squad are aware just how much this means to them, and to the city as a whole.

Indeed, after Tuesday night’s impressive 3-0 victory over a recently-resurgent Reading side, the Sweden international appealed to supporters on Twitter to arrive at the stadium an hour before Saturday’s clash and create an atmosphere never seen before at Elland Road; highlighting the need for their support more than ever before.

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Pablo Hernandez (left) scored twice for Leeds in a 3-0 victory over Reading on Tuesday.

Judging by some of the jubilant scenes that have been on view at Elland Road recently, that is no mean feat. The sea of white scarves and the constant chorus of famous anthem Marching on Together, among others, has undoubtedly rallied Marcelo Bielsa’s troops ahead of the business end of the season. Several West Bromwich Albion fans were happy to acknowledge that the atmosphere at Elland Road was the best they had seen from a home crowd after their 4-0 drubbing on March 1.

While the Whites have always prided themselves on the level of their vociferous support, the atmosphere evident at Elland Road this season is certainly a step above what it has been at times over the last 15 years. Much of that is surely to do with ongoings off the field, but the fact that Bielsa has the team fighting at the top end of the table again, while producing the sort of entertaining football that the fans have been yearning for for years, has undoubtedly played its part.

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Capacity crowds and good performances have contributed to the electric atmosphere at Elland Road this season.

After suffering a blip in the immediate period following Christmas Day in which Leeds lost five out of six league games, the Whites have turned it around and have won now five of the last six. A Leeds win on Saturday would provide some breathing space in the race for the top two, and signal the intent of the team with less than two months of the season to go.

However, the challenge posed by the Blades should not be underestimated. Chris Wilder’s side are unbeaten since January 19 and have won six of their last nine. Indeed, Bielsa was quick to acknowledge the great job that Wilder has done at Bramall Lane and the tough task that his side face.

He said: “I have learned a lot from Sheffield United. They have a new style of play, they’ve been faithful to their style all season and each player is giving the best of himself.

“When we played against them [in December] it was a hard win and probably we didn’t deserve to win. It’s a big challenge to play against them.”

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Chris Wilder has steered Sheffield United to within two points of the automatic promotion places.

The match certainly comes at the end of a poignant week for Leeds United, in which it was announced that former chairman Bill Fotherby had passed away. Fotherby was responsible for bringing Howard Wilkinson to Elland Road, a move that set the club up to achieve its most recent major honour – the First Division Championship in 1992. The current Leeds squad will be hoping to put in a performance on Saturday to serve as a fitting tribute to the man who helped bring so much joy to the Elland Road faithful as they look to emulate some of the success that he helped deliver.

Elsewhere, Leeds’s under-23 side sealed progression to the quarter-finals of the Premier League Cup on Thursday with a penalty shootout victory over Fulham. The form of Carlos Corberan’s side this season has impressively matched that of the first team and is further indication of the progression of the football club as a whole. Added to that, a good number of minutes for Jack Clarke and Gaetano Berardi – both of whom could feature on the first team bench on Saturday – alongside news that Kemar Roofe and Adam Forshaw are both on the road to recovery, and it seems that Leeds are well set up in the final stages of their chase for Premier League football.

Featured photograph/Getty Images