Leeds United head coach Steve Evans reckons tonight is the ideal opportunity for his players to test themselves against the ‘best team in the Championship’. Phil Hay reports.
Irrespective of results over the weekend, Steve Evans left his squad in no doubt that Middlesbrough are the best side they will play this season, in the Championship at least. “They’re the benchmark for us,” Evans said and the table just about proves it.
Leeds United will fall a long way short of that benchmark over 46 league games but in a one-off match at Elland Road tonight, Evans wants the club to meet it and show that the gulf between them is not as wide as it seems. On paper, Leeds are 21 points in arrears having played a game more than Boro. Their heaviest defeat of the season came at The Riverside, albeit under a different head coach and on a day when Leeds controlled much of the play but Boro found the net with every shot on target.
Evans was acutely aware of disillusionment in the air as the dust settled on last weekend’s 1-0 loss to Nottingham Forest but he maintains that his team are better than that; better than a side who looked like they would never score with all the possession in the world. He also knows that after four fixtures without a win, Boro might be prone to anxiety this evening.
United’s head coach expects his opposite number, Aitor Karanka, to start Jordan Rhodes for the first time since his £9m move from Blackburn Rovers and Evans is laying a weight of responsibility at the door of his defence. “If we come away with a clean sheet then I think we’ll win the game,” Evans said. “That’s the message I’ll give the players. Obviously we need to be more creative but first and foremost our defending has to be spot on. We can’t give Boro anything.”
Evans needs a win. Leeds, like Boro, have been short of them in the past month and have not moved forward from a run in December which saw him shortlisted for the manager-of-the-month award – a prize which Karanka claimed ahead of him. “We’ve had a frustrating spell, a period where the results haven’t been so good, but we can be better than this,” Evans said.
“Not many people would dispute that Middlesbrough are the best side in the division but I want a performance which shows that we can go up against that benchmark. I want my left-back to be better than their left-back. I want my midfield to be better than their midfield. I want to see us win every battle.
“I want us to match up to them in every position and show people watching what this team’s really about. I want us to show exactly where we are versus the benchmark because we’re all a bit annoyed about the way things have gone since Christmas.”
In a typically outspoken moment, Evans recently told the YEP that he would not attempt to cling onto his job as head coach through another season in which Leeds were out of the running for promotion. On the assumption that he and United agree to extend his tenure beyond an initial contract to the end of June, he promised to resign from the post if the 2016-17 campaign went the way of this term.
Boro and Karanka have been more patient than that. The Spaniard is reaching the sharp end of his second full year as manager and received Boro’s unwavering support after the club lost to Norwich City in the play-off final last May.
“I’ve the utmost respect for him,” Evans said. “If his team are the benchmark for the division then he’d be the benchmark for the managers in it. But at the same time, he hasn’t won a promotion yet.
“I think we all know, the supporters included, that we’re going to fall short of that this season but I’m absolutely clear that if I’m here next season I’ve got to be involved in a promotion challenge. That has to happen and that’s why I want us to be playing well and getting results, no matter the league table. We have to look like the basis of a team who are shaping up for a better run next season.
“People might laugh at this but I’ve no qualms in saying that I believe I can get this club promoted and I’m not going to ask people to be excessively patient. Leeds United were relegated from the Premier League 12 years ago. That’s far too long – too long for me to be telling people to wait.”
The club’s stature still resonates in certain respects. Tonight’s game was controversially moved from Saturday, at less than four weeks’ notice, after Sky Sports decided to televise another fixture involving Leeds. The Mail On Sunday reported yesterday that the Football League required a legal injuction to force United and owner Massimo Cellino to comply with the rearranged date.
The dispute between Leeds, Sky and the Football League over televised matches and fixture disruption has died down slightly since then, despite criticism of the late rearrangement from supporters of both clubs, and Cellino is presently in Italy. His threat to ban Sky from the ground ahead of December’s clash with Derby County is unlikely to be repeated this evening.
Evans could certainly do without that distraction. This week might be the peak of United’s campaign with tonight’s game at home to Boro followed by Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie away at Watford. Leeds have not made the quarter-finals of the FA Cup since 2003 and the days of Terry Venables.
From Evans’ perspective, a good performance this evening is as much about laying the ground for an upset at Vicarage Road as it is about turning Boro over.
“We need a performance that we can take with us to Watford,” Evans said. “Watford are a quality Premier League side. I watched them outplay Chelsea for an hour recently and in a match like (Saturday’s fifth-round tie) your absolute best sometimes isn’t good enough.
“But if we can match Boro, beat Boro and take that to Vicarage Road with a big away crowd behind us then it gives us a chance. I can’t argue with the effort or the commitment of the players recently but we need to play in a way that we’re proud of.
“I know we have to be better in both boxes. If you saw as at home to Hull or Derby or away at Wolves and Forest then I think you’d say that in those game we looked like a good side.
“We looked like a good Championship team. The players shouldn’t forget that. We’re a team who can play.
“We just haven’t shown it enough.”