AFTER seeing Leeds United strengthen their promotion push with Friday night’s 3-1 victory at Birmingham City, Lee Sobot looks at few key talking points ahead of Tuesday night’s crunch clash at Fulham.
Should Kalvin Phillips and Alfonso Pedraza be handed starting berths?
A few eyebrows were raised when Phillips was brought on for a below par Eunan O’Kane with 31 minutes remaining, given that Phillips had not been involved at all for United’s last two games. But the November EFL player of the month returned to form with a vengeance and produced a clever run and cross to set-up Chris Wood’s crucial second goal after latching on to a pass from Souleymane Doukara. Whites head coach Garry Monk must now at least be considering starting Phillips alongside captain Liam Bridcutt in defensive midfield for Tuesday’s clash at Fulham.
The same must also be said about Alfonso Pedraza who made an immediate impact after coming on for Stuart Dallas in the 73rd minute by scoring his first goal for Leeds just eight minutes later. Pedraza looks capable of becoming a class act once he is fully settled and must already be pushing Dallas and Doukara for a start out wide though whether Fulham away is the right game for the attacking Spaniard to start is open to debate.
Is attack the best form of defence?
As far as United’s bid to secure a place in the play-offs is concerned, a point at Craven Cottage on Tuesday would be a decent result, albeit a victory would clearly be even better. After eighth-placed Norwich City were blitzed at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, seventh-placed Fulham now look the only conceivable dangers to the current top six with - a point illustrated by the current betting for teams to finish in the play-offs. Norwich - who are 12 points behind Leeds and nine points off the play-offs - are now 8-1 to gatecrash the top six, with Derby, who are a further point behind the Canaries, next in the betting at 14s.
Even with 11 games remaining, the top six already looks a seven-horse race and if Leeds can keep Fulham eight points behind - even though the Cottagers have a game in hand - that would be a decent cushion with ten games to go.
But if Fulham were to beat Leeds on Tuesday and also win their game in hand - which is at home to fifth-bottom Blackburn Rovers - then the gap to Leeds would suddenly be just two points, assuming both teams also win their games this coming weekend and it must be pointed out that Fulham face a tall order on Saturday at thriving leaders Newcastle United. Leeds welcome 16th-placed QPR but nevertheless, the temptation to think that Tuesday’s game at Craven Cottage is ‘don’t lose’ as opposed to ‘must win’ is obvious.
But Leeds also closed the gap on the top two to seven points at the weekend and that gap could theoretically be slashed to four points should United beat Brighton at Elland Road a week on Saturday - or even less if the Seagulls slip up at Rotherham United on Tuesday or at home to Derby County on Friday night. Leeds are still 20-1 to finish in the top two and also have third-placed Huddersfield Town to contend with given that the Terriers will be four points ahead of Leeds if winning their game in hand. But there’s no doubt that United at least have an outside chance of snatching automatic promotion and all things considered, attacking Fulham from the off might be the best bet at Craven Cottage though Fulham are likely to come flying out of the traps themselves.
Should Pablo Hernandez keep his place as no 10?
Hernandez’s pass set up Pedraza’s goal at St Andrew’s but that aside the Spaniard had a poor game and there are strong calls that Hernandez, who doesn’t have much of a defensive game, is better suited to Leeds when they play at home. Kemar Roofe - who has looked at a natural at no 10 - is the obvious alternative though Phillips is an option there too. Yet with the game still very much in the balance it was Hernandez’s vision and fine pass that ultimately set up the chance for Leeds to go 3-1 up and finally end Birmingham’s very strong resistance. Class is permanent they say and that fact will be at the forefront of Monk’s mind when picking his team for Fulham. Hernandez’s set pieces and in particular corners have also proved a vital weapon.
Is it time for Charlie Taylor to come back into the team?
What to do with the fit again Charlie Taylor is another burning issue given that Gaetano Berardi looked shaky at times at St Andrew’s. A natural right back, Berardi has performed wonders at left back in Taylor’s long absence but Birmingham had plenty of joy down right on Friday and Taylor is too good a player to not be involved once fit, which he is. The 23-year-old failed to make the Whites 18 on Friday but it would be no surprise if that changes on Tuesday night.