The lasting image of Leeds United’s rampant victory at Pride Park in August was of a dejected Frank Lampard in Derby County’s dug-out, hands-in-pockets and on the end of a schooling.
Leeds trounced Derby 4-1 in Lampard’s first home game as manager and the afternoon was a welcome to the trade which Marcelo Bielsa has been plying for almost three decades. “Lots of lessons for us,” Lampard said at full-time, and a few for him too.
Friday night’s return game promises to be different: tighter and more competitive, with considerably higher stakes.
Leeds’ second league match of 2019 is nothing less than their biggest game of the season, on a weekend which could alter the complexion of the Championship significantly. The pick of the other fixtures sends second-placed Norwich City to West Bromwich Albion in fourth.
Leeds, despite two league defeats in succession, are still the team to catch, two points clear and yet to show that their losses either side of New Year’s Day were indicative of more than isolated days which went wrong.
Friday’s game is key, though; a chance for Leeds to reassert themselves or for the Championship to believe that Bielsa’s players are hitting a slump.
Derby are sixth in the table and, in Lampard’s first season in management, genuine contenders for a play-off position.
Aspirations of anything better than that depend on cutting a six-point gap to Norwich and an eight-point gap to Leeds in first. Substantial changes were made to County’s squad in the summer but over time, several of the players Lampard gambled on - Jack Marriott, Harry Wilson and Mason Mount - have come good. They come to Elland Road on a run of one defeat in eight.
A broken foot forced Adam Forshaw to sit and watch the first meeting between the clubs, a performance as good as any Leeds have delivered under Bielsa. Fluent and clever in attacking the space left in behind Lampard’s midfield, they picked off Derby twice in each half. Bielsa, nonetheless, offered Lampard encouragement.
“Derby have good players and a head coach who will allow them to play an important role in the Championship,” he said. “What’s happened so far doesn’t make a trend.”
Forshaw will start against Derby on Friday, in a line-up deprived of the suspended Kalvin Phillips but potentially strengthened by the return of Liam Cooper at centre-back. Forshaw admitted that a big weekend lay ahead.
“I think so,” the midfielder said, “but we do just focus on ourselves. I know it’s such a cliché and I say it all the time but if we get the right results then we won’t have to worry about anyone else.
“Derby have got quality and their manager has come in and injected a bit of intensity. They’ve got really good flair players and there’s an excitement there, like there is at our place. It’s set up to be a really good game again.”
Leeds became embroiled in an end-to-end goalfest at Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day, suffering a 4-2 defeat which turned on Phillips’ red card, but Hull City’s 2-0 victory over United two days earlier was a better blueprint for forcing results against Bielsa’s side at Elland Road.
Hull, like Birmingham City in September and Forest in October, were happy to concede possession and trust their ability to limit mistakes at the back and do damage on the counter-attack. To date, they and Birmingham are the only teams to beat United in Leeds. Forest were denied by a late equaliser which should have been disallowed.
League losses under Bielsa have been scarce, though, and neither he nor Forshaw see the club’s past two results in the Championship as a concern.
“We’re top of the league so everything is good,” Forshaw said. “Of course we’ve lost the last couple but we believe we can beat anybody in this league. We’re full of confidence going into the game against Derby.”
Cooper’s involvement against Derby would be an advantage, giving Bielsa a pair of experienced, recognised centre-backs for the first time since Cooper injured a knee at Sheffield United on December 1.
United’s club captain was sent for surgery in Rome after that game but recovered quickly and completed 65 minutes of Monday’s Under-23s game against Hull. His height and presence might help to plug the recent flow of concessions from set-pieces, a failing Leeds have been stung by recently.
The suspension of Phillips - Pontus Jansson’s partner in the absence of Cooper - gives Bielsa a crucial decision to make at the back.
“Coops, like everybody else who’s been injured, has been a big miss,” Forshaw said. “They’ve all been big misses but the other lads who’ve been waiting on the sidelines have stepped up and let’s not forget that we’ve won a lot of games in the last month and a half.
“There’s been a slight blip the last couple of games but it’ll be good to have the skipper back, definitely. He’s a key part of the team.”
Forshaw took Cooper’s armband in Sunday’s FA Cup defeat to Queens Park Rangers, a decision made by Bielsa on the back of Forshaw’s error-strewn outing against Forest.
“It was a massive honour,” Forshaw said.
“I’m proud for the manager to allow me to do that.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t get a win and go through to the next round but it was a proud moment for me, definitely.”