Stuart Dallas saves the party, Eddie Nketiah starting and still long odds-on for top two - Leeds United Talking Points

AFTER seeing Leeds United leave it late to take a 1-1 draw against Championship visitors Preston North End, Lee Sobot takes a look at a few key talking points from Boxing Day's clash against the Lilywhites at Elland Road.

By Lee Sobot
Friday, 27th December 2019, 4:50 pm
DENIED: Leeds United's Arsenal loanee star Eddie Nketiah rises to win a header from a second-half corner only to see his effort saved by Preston goalkeeper Declan Rudd. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.
DENIED: Leeds United's Arsenal loanee star Eddie Nketiah rises to win a header from a second-half corner only to see his effort saved by Preston goalkeeper Declan Rudd. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.

Effective visiting high press

Despite not taking all three points in their recent clash at Elland Road against Cardiff City, United made a lightning fast start against the Bluebirds who were blitzed from the off and lucky not to be more than 2-0 down at the break.

Yet this time the boot was strangely on the other foot with Leeds at sixes and sevens throughout the opening exchanges and Preston squandering several fine opportunities before finally taking a deserved 22nd-minute lead through Alan Browne.

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There was plenty of head-scratching in the Elland Road stands with Leeds unable to find anything like their swashbuckling best football but all credit to Alex Neil's Lilywhites for ensuring space was at a premium and carrying out a highly effective pressing game of their own.

It was, however, after the visitors took the lead that the pattern began to change with the Lilywhites naturally keen to protect what they had but the Lancastrians still remained a threat on the break.

Stuart Dallas eventually ensured the points were shared when equalising in the 89th minute and in the end United actually had more than enough chances to take all three points.

But Leeds can expect plenty of visiting teams attempt to copy Preston's plan though quite whether that can be executed remains to be seen with fitness especially needed to be at maximum levels in order to do so for the full 90 minutes.

In short, however teams start at Elland Road, United will always be very difficult to keep at bay for the full 90 minutes.

Dallas saves the cancelled Pablo party

Any Championship team is naturally going to miss a player such as Pablo Hernandez in his absence with the Spaniard voted in Sky's Championship team of the decade in the run up to the Preston clash.

Hernandez is facing a month on the sidelines with a hamstring injury with Leeds suffering a double whammy in terms of absences for the no 10 role with Tyler Roberts still on the way back from his own hamstring problem.

Whites head coach Marcelo Bielsa brought Gjanni Alioski into the side in the absence of Hernandez with Dallas pushing into centre midfield to sit just behind Mateusz Klich who pushed on to essentially fill the no 10 role.

Both worked hard but the evening looked set to end in frustration until Dallas' third shot of the game finally made the Whites breakthrough with one minute left.

But Leeds are undoubtedly missing Hernandez's spark and now would be a perfect time for Roberts to return though whether the Wales international is ready for Sunday's clash at Birmingham City remains to be seen.

That seems unlikely meaning Bielsa will now have to decide how to play it for Sunday's clash at St Andrew's and whether to leave things as they are.

Time for Bamford and Nketiah together?

The Eddie Nketiah situation thickens the attacking options plot further with Nketiah and Patrick Bamford both playing the second half of last weekend's 2-1 loss at Fulham together in a front two with Bamford actually dropping deeper than Nketiah and himself almost operating as a no 10.

Helder Costa was the man to be withdrawn at Craven Cottage but the summer marquee signing had a decent game against Preston.

And Bielsa resisted any temptation to follow suit and play Bamford and Nketiah together when calling for a change on the hour mark against Preston with top scorer Bamford surprisingly the man withdrawn as Nketiah came on in a like-for-like swap.

The debate as to whether Nketiah will still be here in January or recalled by parent club Arsenal rumbles on but certainly as far as Sunday's clash at Birmingham is concerned the England under-21s international must be at least pushing for a start which would surely come together with Bamford rather than instead of.

Leeds are still hopeful that Nketiah will stay but both the striker and Arsenal naturally want to see the 20-year-old gaining more game time and not having to look to be loaned out elsewhere.

United should field an XI that Bielsa wants to play and not what the Gunners want but equally there is surely now a strong case to give Nketiah a run in the side from the start, something that would seemingly suit all parties just as decision time looms and Nketiah and Bamford in tandem might be the way to go.

Moreover and looking further ahead, the spotlight has again been turned on to the January transfer window and what Leeds need with winger Jack Clarke now confirmed as heading back to parent club Tottenham Hotspur.

Another wing option is therefore surely needed and United need to make absolutely sure that they definitely have a strong enough squad to get the job done with the chance of promotion to the Premier League after what will be a 16-year absence staring them in the face like never before.

That promotion really should have been nailed last term but with the division clearly even more open than last season this looks an even better opportunity with a second-placed finish fine and no need to worry about West Brom who themselves could still be overhauled.

Eight points clear and 1-8 for top-two finish

Leeds would naturally have been hoping to take all three points against Preston, especially after the disappointments of throwing away a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 with Cardiff before losing 2-1 at Fulham.

With more crazy Championship results going their way in Boxing Day's 3pm kick-offs, United kicked off knowing a win would re-establish a ten-point buffer in the automatic promotion spots but equally aware that defeat to Preston would see the gap slashed to six points in which case the Lilywhites would move third.

Leeds were staring down the barrel of a six-point gap with two minutes left, quite a drastic cut to the 13-point advantage that United were holding at half-time against Cardiff with other results also going their way.

But Dallas' deflected strike changed things rather dramatically as an eight-point cushion is still a very healthy advantage with 22 games now left to go.

Leeds are quite clearly nowhere near home and hosed yet and the best available odds of 1-8 about a top-two finish look ridiculously short. Even West Brom are shorter at 1-5.

The accumulation of just two points out of a possible last nine is naturally a concern, as is the squad strength in depth when it comes to several injuries.

As it stands, Adam Forshaw (hip) and Hernandez (hamstring) are both out and whereas Jamie Shackleton and Tyler Roberts are both back in training after their own hamstring issues they are evidently not quite ready.

But bit by bit Leeds are starting to tick off he games and IF the Whites can win at Birmingham and come through the New Year's Day clash at leaders West Brom unscathed then the picture ought to be looking pretty rosy heading into 2020.

The Birmingham game, though, is huge and contrastingly zero points from the next two games could create a different picture entirely...

Brentford lead the chase but more changes likely

Brentford and United's old mate Pontus Jansson now lead the chase in third but only one point will separate third to seventh if Nottingham Forest win their game in hand and as long as Leeds pick up the pace again they should be extremely hard to catch.

As far as those leading the chasing are concerned, third-placed Brentford visit Millwall on Sunday and then go to Bristol City on New Year's Day. Tough.

But fourth-placed Sheffield Wednesday, fifth-placed Fulham, sixth-placed Preston and seventh-placed Nottingham Forest all have back-to-back home games next with the Owls taking on Cardiff City and then Hull City and the Cottagers welcoming Stoke City and then Reading.

Preston, meanwhile, will take on first Reading and then Middlesbrough at Deepdale while Forest will have Wigan Athletic and then Blackburn Rovers coming to the City Ground.

Even considering the unpredictable nature of the Championship, considering the above fixtures and the fact that Leeds visit West Brom on New Year's Day the importance of winning at Birmingham is obvious.

As far as the odds for a top two finish go, Brentford are rated the main threat at 8-1 with Fulham 12s, Wednesday 20s and Preston 33s.

Forest are 50s, the same price as Swansea City who are eighth and on the same points as Forest but having played a game more.

Ninth-placed Blackburn are next at 150s, the same price as tenth-placed Bristol City.