David Prutton – Time still on Leeds United’s side in race for Championship top two

Now that the victory is in their back pocket, Sheffield United must wish that their win at Leeds United had come even later in the season, at the point where the fixture was do or die.

Monday, 25th March 2019, 5:15 am
AUTOMATIC RIVALRY: Norwich boss Daniel Farke, MArcelo Bielsa and Sheffield United manager, Chris Wilder.

It’s a huge result, don’t get me wrong, but it would only have felt like a telling blow if Sheffield United had a couple of games left to play. At that stage there might have been no way back for Leeds but in the cold light of day, it’s still March and there are eight fixtures to go. I’m pretty sure the buzz in Sheffield United’s camp will have already turned into a sharp focus on their next match against Bristol City.

I‘ve no gut feeling for how this fight will end, except to say that there’s no way Leeds are done and dusted in third place. The top two positions have changed hands so many times already this season and it would be typical of football if, having lost a massive derby at home, results this weekend shot Leeds back into second.

Both Chris Wilder and Marcelo Bielsa have been around the game long enough to know that the impetus gained last Saturday is pretty flimsy and easily lost. The biggest threat to the Blades is that they think they’ve broken Bielsa’s back.

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Psychology in football is funny. The finishing line will seem much closer from Bielsa’s perspective than it does from Wilder’s, simply because Sheffield United would like the season to end here and now.

When you’ve got the advantage, time can’t go fast enough. When you’re trying to make up ground, you never have enough of it.

Unless this one defeat has knocked Leeds out of their stride – and the evidence shows that defeats under Bielsa never do that – I can only see the outcome of their scrap being decided right at the death.

As far as the title is concerned, I think Norwich City have got it. They’re not so far out in front that they can’t be caught but they are flying again and they’ve been in a convincing rhythm for a long time. It’s hard to see a way in which that consistency will evaporate suddenly, barring injuries to some of their key men, and they’ve got some decent fixtures coming up.

It true that games get more and more difficult in the last couple of months because virtually everyone needs points but Norwich’s style of play – the pace they’ve got, the way they counter-attack – is what you want when opposition sides are compelled to have a go.

I’d back them to get what they need to go up as champions and it does feel like second place is a straight shoot-out between Leeds and the Blades.

Norwich’s league position is phenomenal when you think about it, a ranking built on a squad with very few recognisable names (or names which wouldn’t have been recognisable when the season started).

Back when Leeds wiped the floor with them at Carrow Road in August, I was struggling to work out what Norwich were meant to be.

NOT OVER YET: Pablo Hernandez, left, Pontus Jansson, Gjanni Alioski and Stuart Dallas, right, show their disappointment at full-time after losing out to Sheffield United at Elland Road. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

They looked tippy-tappy and brittle and there was a moment when it seemed like Daniel Farke’s job might be on the line but like Bielsa and Wilder, Farke’s conviction in sticking to the programme has served him so well.

In a lot of ways it’s been the story of the Championship this season: the three clubs going for the top two places being driven on by coaches with the clearest of tactics and the clearest of philosophies.

There was a lot of annoyance over West Bromwich Albion sacking Darren Moore last month.

But in some ways I think he was a victim of what’s going on above him in the table.

DRIVING SEAT: Sheffield United's players celebrate at full time at Elland Road last Saturday after beaing Leeds United. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

If West Brom had been behind Stoke City, Middlesbrough or Aston Villa – clubs with particularly big budgets – then the board at The Hawthorns might have been more philosophical about his performance.

Instead, what you’ve got are squads punching well above their weight and outdoing a far more expensive group of players at West Brom.

Norwich’s recruitment, like the brilliant signing of Teemu Pukki, was in no way obvious or predictable and not wildly costly either. Sheffield United have a comparatively small budget and are using several players who were in League One with them two years ago.

As for Leeds, yes they threw a big salary at Bielsa but the squad has barely changed from last season and very few players at Elland Road are big earners by the standards of the division.

All in all, it’s been a triumph for coaching; a triumph of planning and preparation as opposed to the age-old tactic of spending a fortune on players whose names make a top-class XI on paper.

I know Bielsa gave his squad time away this week but I don’t imagine they felt the urge to get away from each other. At all of the top three clubs, you sense a fantastic level of unity and collective spirit. It’s a shame, in all honesty, that there aren’t three automatic promotion places for them to share.

VICTIM: Former West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore Picture: Danny Lawson/PA

Leeds need to be philosophical about what happened last weekend. They played well enough against Sheffield United and didn’t take chances which could have killed the game. The longer it went on, the more Sheffield United were likely to grow into it and the more they were likely to nick it themselves.

If I had one criticism, aside from a couple of rare errors by Liam Cooper, it was that the finishing from the likes of Patrick Bamford and Jack Harrison felt timid in the first half.

You were looking for confidence and in those instances, it wasn’t there. Leeds paid to the price.

Tension is going to play a part now because the run-in is always a mental battle – what, for example, do Bielsa or Wilder really have left to work on in a technical sense during this international break? – but confidence should not be an issue for Leeds.

None of the top three are bottling it and none of the top three have let a massive advantage slip. Whoever misses out will have been beaten by two very worthy opponents and there’s no disgrace in that.

It’s easy for me to say but the players should be loving this scenario. It’s what competitive sport is all about.