The threat of relegation from the Championship is pretty much over for Leeds United but an all-out push for the play-offs doesn’t appear to be high on the club’s list of priorities. Phil Hay reports.
At the end of Saturday’s win over Blackburn Rovers, Sol Bamba was asked to predict where the rest of this season might take Leeds United.
Anyone hoping for a mention of the play-offs found the defender in a more cautious mood.
The turnaround at Leeds between Brighton and Blackburn was so quick and so pronounced that Bamba preferred to stop short of shouting the odds.
The play-offs look wholly unrealistic but the threat of relegation is no longer apparent either.
United might happily settle for the calm of mid table and an opportunity to push for the Championship’s top 10.
Leeds were classed as a club in disarray after their implosion at Brighton two weeks ago but three straight victories, culminating in a display of dominance at Ewood Park on Saturday, had the more optimistic of the club’s supporters wondering about the play-offs.
Writing in the YEP yesterday, Noel Whelan said a top-six finish was ‘not beyond the realms of possibility’.
A 12-point gap with 10 games to play suggests that it is and neither Bamba nor his head coach, Steve Evans, paid much heed to that idea after a 2-1 win at Ewood Park.
“It’s difficult,” Bamba said. “In Leeds, one week you’re talking about going up. One week you’re talking about going down.
“I just think we need to win as many games as possible and see where that takes us.”
What Evans, Bamba and others could agree on was that Leeds’ performance against Blackburn was comprehensive; as complete a display as United have produced in Evans’ time as head coach.
The opening goal, scored by Bamba from close range on 34 minutes, gave the club the confidence to control the match and Mirco Antenucci’s second-half strike left Rovers to chase a hopeless situation.
Simeon Jackson’s 89th-minute volley came too late to change the outcome.
Blackburn, despite their strong form at home, were less of a scalp than the Cardiff side beaten by Leeds in Wales last Tuesday – United’s first win away at Cardiff since 1984 – but as Evans said after full-time at Ewood Park: “The quality of the performance in patches today was much better.”
Bamba agreed, saying: “It was very good. I think it was a different performance to Cardiff.
“Cardiff was more about passing the ball.
“They’re a good team and they try to do that.
“With Blackburn it was different, with long balls and passes down the channels.
“We needed to defend against that and we did really well.”
Bamba’s volley from an Alex Mowatt corner was his second goal of the season, a goal which he admitted had come despite a training session on Friday in which he would have struggled to hit a barn door.
Evans was more interested in seeing his captain extend his return to form defensively after a night at Brighton where errors by Bamba contributed to a 4-0 defeat.
The Ivory Coast international is not the only player who has cleared his head since then.
Antenucci’s classy strike at Blackburn – a deft, right-foot finish following a length-of-the-field counter attack – was his fourth in three games, establishing him as Leeds’ top scorer.
Bamba said Antenucci’s run of finishes and general contribution was indicative of his positive mindset; back in the team and back in the goals.
“His goal was unbelievable,” Bamba said.
“To run nearly the whole pitch and finish like that is unbelievable but we know what he’s capable of because we see it in training week in, week out. His head has to be right.
“When he plays week in, week out he’s happy.
“When he’s not playing he’s not happy. At the minute he’s doing very well.”
The striker’s frame of mind is such that Evans would be hard-pressed to justify the recall of Chris Wood against Huddersfield Town this weekend.
Evans has been craving Wood’s return from a hamstring strain and was finally able to use him as a late substitute at Ewood Park.
But the partnership of Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara has helped to yield a run of three straight wins for the first time in over a year.
United last won four league matches back-to-back in November 2009. Evans was encouraged at Ewood Park by a bench featuring Wood, Stuart Dallas, Mustapha Carayol and Luke Murphy.
And the Leeds boss said his range of substitutes was “the strongest it’s been in my time here”.
Wood, who has eight goals this season but has barely played since the turn of the year, completed the final five minutes at Blackburn, helping to see out a deserved win.
“Everyone would have seen how good he looked when he came on,” Evans said.
Bamba said: “That’s what you want – competition for places. That’s what gets you going.
“I think at the minute we’ve got a strong bench and I was talking about this with the gaffer.
“He said a couple of weeks ago that when he looked at his bench, he couldn’t do anything. But at the minute he’s got a strong bench. That’s the key.
“Having Chris (Wood) back is massive.
“We all know the kind of player he is and to have him in the side is clearly important.”