LEEDS UNITED embark on a run of six matches starting today at Loftus Road which could lift them back into play-off reckoning – but head coach Thomas Christiansen is taking nothing for granted, as Phil Hay reports.
THREE more games will see Leeds United to the halfway point of the season and if the next fortnight goes to plan Thomas Christiansen expects to be back in the top six by then.
The Championship has been a learning curve for him but 20 games in a famously cut-throat league leaves little to the imagination.
He has pleasing results behind him and unflattering defeats too, some of which are a reflection of the league itself.
Leeds took a beating at Wolverhampton Wanderers and were dominated by Cardiff City and Sheffield United, three of the Championship’s leading four clubs.
The pendulum swung during wins over Middlesbrough and Bristol City, and a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa last Friday. The overall comparison does not make United’s head coach unhappy.
Set against opposition like that, the next six games in front of Leeds have an inviting tinge; all six against clubs below them in the table and five against teams in the bottom half.
Queens Park Rangers, who host United at Loftus Road this afternoon, have not won in over a month.
Football can look straightforward on paper, or more straightforward than it is in practice, but with Leeds five points back from the play-offs the significance of this period speaks for itself.
The pressure which built on United before November’s international break, however, killed the threat of complacency and Christiansen does not want any creeping in.
Leeds’ last four matches included meetings with Wolves, Boro and Villa and the club came out of them with seven points.
A run which will pit United against QPR, Hull City, Burton Albion and others of a similar standing could be classed as a more routine challenge.
“That should look easier but it’s not right to think so,” Christiansen said. “When you play against higher teams or, let’s say, bigger teams the motivation comes from that alone.
“These games are very difficult. We play away now against QPR who need desperately to take three points.
“You could say it’s good to go there while they are like that but they’ll come out like lions, strong and intense. Our intention is to go there, break that, score goals and control the situation.
“I take all the teams in the same way and I expect the same reaction from my players. It’s not in my thoughts to not take a game seriously.
“We have to be even more focused on their strengths and weaknesses to provoke what we want.”
QPR have more teeth at Loftus Road than they do away from home, which is to say that they have some.
The club have not won an away game since February and that record, combined with an extended injury list, explains why Ian Holloway finds his squad in 18th place.
The return of his captain, centre-back Nedum Onuoha, from a torn hamstring strain would be a blessed relief this afternoon.
“They’ll go strong into this game for sure,” Christiansen said, “and there’s the possibility that their captain will come back again.”
The risk to Christiansen and Leeds is found in the defeats suffered by Wolves and Sheffield United at Loftus Road in October.
Wolves’ 2-1 loss, inflicted by former Leeds striker Matt Smith, was one of only three this season.
Sheffield United’s 1-0 defeat followed on from their rousing win at Elland Road eight days earlier. Christiansen’s eye was also caught by QPR scoring twice in injury-time to snatch an improbable 2-2 draw with Brentford last month.
“At home they are good and they’ve made it difficult for good teams in this league,” he said. “In their last home game they were 2-0 down and in one minute they drew the game, when no-one expected that.
“We know they have players injured in their defensive line but up front they have (Conor) Washington and (Matt) Smith. Smith is very strong and in direct play it’s important that we are alert to that.
“But if we do things right we will be able to beat them. A good performance from ourselves should be enough.”
Leeds’ form since the international break has kept them in the hunt, behind a top six which is moving at pace.
Derby lie sixth with 35 points, five better off than Leeds, and United have been out of the play-off positions for more than a month but Christiansen is optimistic of regaining that ranking before Christmas.
Meetings with Norwich City on December 16 and Yorkshire rivals Hull on December 23 will edge his side to the midway stage of the term.
“I believe we’ve built up a confidence in the team again,” Christiansen said.
“I think we’re doing quite well. We’ve faced strong teams and teams who haven’t performed to their best who are in the bottom (half) now. We’ve had a very good season until now.
“We still have three games to close the first round of games and I’m very optimistic that if we take the points I believe we can then we’ll have a good possibility to be in the top six before the second round starts.”
Christiansen said he had seen enough in the first 20 matches to convince him that talk of Leeds finishing sixth or higher this season was credible. “The players have show that, of course.
“At the beginning of the season we were very good but I also believe that what they have shown in the last four games is something we can look at and say ‘the team is there’.
“If we compete in this way we can match all the teams. It’s a good view that I have.”