After a far from ideal week, Neil Warnock is fully focused on United’s next two games at Wolves and Middlesbrough. Phil Hay reports.
Neil Warnock insisted that Leeds United’s players were under no illusion about the importance of their next two matches as he fought to limit the disruption caused by the latest round of international fixtures.
Warnock underlined the significance of back-to-back away games at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Middlesbrough by warning that his team “must get results” during the next five days to keep themselves in touch with the Championship’s play-off zone.
The United manager is readying himself for a meeting with a Wolves side who he claimed were “easy to under-estimate” on account of their pitiful league position but his owns plans for Saturday’s game at Molineux are still to be finalised with three players returning from international duty and Ross McCormack suffering from ’flu.
McCormack is back in Leeds after being sent home from Scotland’s training camp on Monday afternoon and Warnock said the striker was “touch and go” for the clash with Wolves having missed yesterday’s friendly between Scotland and Estonia at Pittodrie.
Defender Tom Lees was due report to Thorp Arch today after a 15-minute outing in England Under-21s’ 4-0 win over Sweden on Tuesday night and midfielder Paul Green is also flying back to England having featured in the Republic of Ireland squad which hosted Poland in Dublin yesterday.
Jamaica’s Rodolph Austin, however, is not expected to rejoin Warnock’s squad until tomorrow after travelling to Mexico for a World Cup qualifier and a late decision will be taken on his involvement in the West Midlands.
“It’s not been the ideal week,” Warnock said. “We’ve had players away and a few who couldn’t get to training on Tuesday because of the weather so I’m going to have to keep my options open.
“Ross has got the symptoms of ’flu and we’ll need to see how he is but he’s going to be touch and go. As for the others who’ve been away, you never know how they are until they’re back through the door. Players take a lot of pride in international call-ups and rightly so but for a manager it’s a worry.
“But we’ve got to cope with that and ride whatever difficulties we’ve got because the games ahead of us are important. We’ve played really well in our last two games but we lost to Cardiff on Saturday and that was hard to take. I don’t think I’ve been more disappointed by a result all season.
“It’s Wolves on Saturday and Middlesbrough on Tuesday – two tough games but two games we must get results from. That’s the situation we’re in.”
Saturday’s game against Cardiff turned on a glaring first-half miss by midfielder Ross Barkley and a second-half error by teenager Sam Byram which presented City with the only goal of a tight Championship contest.
Byram was punished by Fraizer Campbell’s tap-in after hooking a heavy cross from Matthew Connolly directly into the path of Craig Bellamy on the end of United’s box. A dominant Leeds side were unable to force an equaliser during the remaining 26 minutes.
The loss was Leeds’ first in 10 matches at home – a run which included two FA Cup ties – but the timing of the result was damaging, increasing the need for positive scorelines at both Wolves and Boro. Boro are currently a prime target for Leeds, six points better off and occupying the Championship’s last play-off position.
Cardiff lie much further afield – top of the division and 22 points clear of Leeds after their win at Elland Road. “That’s what’s so disappointing about it,” Warnock said. “We wasted a chance to beat the team who are top of the division and we can’t afford to throw points away.
“We’ve lost a game we shouldn’t have lost and you could see how up for it the players were. They put a lot of effort into dominating Cardiff and one mistake by Sam cost us. He’s had a great season and everyone makes mistakes but he has to learn from that mistake. He’s a defender first and foremost and it wasn’t even like he was in that difficult a situation.
“The ball was there to be cleared properly and the top players make the right decisions in those circumstances. It’s something we’ll be speaking about.”
Byram is not expected to lose his place at Molineux but other changes are possible.
New signings Steve Morison and Stephen Warnock have trained with the rest of the squad this week and are both in contention to start against Wolves, Warnock at left-back and Morison up front with either McCormack or El-Hadji Diouf depending on McCormack’s health.
Having struggled to pick up points at home under their current manager last season, Leeds have made equally hard work of prising results from their away fixtures this term. Their tally of eight defeats since August is as many as the club suffered during the whole of the 2011-12 campaign.
Their win at Huddersfield Town on December 1 is their last Championship victory outside Elland Road and also their only away win since September 29 when a 20-yard finish from Michael Tonge settled a competitive meeting with Bristol City.
Warnock said: “The players should be pleased with how they played against Cardiff and Spurs before that but we haven’t done it away from home in the league for a long time, right back to the Huddersfield game. It’s something we need to change.
“There have been reasons for a few of the results. Key players were missing at Hull, and at Barnsley I thought Luciano Becchio had a bad day up front which put us under the cosh.
“But there’s no one thing that makes us easier to beat away from home than we are at home. I just think you go through spells sometimes, a bit like we did at Elland Road last season.”