Paul Heckingbottom ordered Leeds United’s players to raise their standards and be “100 per cent up” for tonight’s meeting with Wolverhampton Wanderers, insisting there “couldn’t be a better game for us” after Friday’s defeat to Middlesbrough.
Heckingbottom said this evening’s clash against the Championship leaders is “one of the games you’d love to be playing in” and admitted that his side would need to play above themselves to inflict Wolves’ sixth loss of the season.
The Molineux club are running away with automatic promotion and remain on course for the title having profited from the spectacular recruitment drive which brought Diogo Jota, Ruben Neves, Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro to England.
The gulf between Wolves and Leeds is shown by a 24-point gap in the table and Heckingbottom, whose side are adrift of the play-offs, said his players could not afford a repeat of the tepid display given at The Riverside on Friday night.
A Patrick Bamford hat-trick earned Middlesbrough an easy 3-0 win, leaving Leeds with little hope of making the top six, but Heckingbottom expects a reaction at Elland Road this evening against the division’s champions-elect.
“It’s against the best team in the league so far, with a big crowd and a big atmosphere,” United’s head coach said. “Put it this way – there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be 100 per cent up for this game. It’s one of the games you’d love to be playing in. There couldn’t be a better game for us than this one.”
Heckingbottom met Wolves twice while in charge of Barnsley earlier this season, suffering an injury-time defeat at Molineux in September before holding Nuno’s side to a goalless draw at Oakwell in January.
“They’re a team we know well,” Heckingbottom said. “I know what they’re going to bring and there’s no reason for them to change anything.
“It’s been working great for them so I expect them to be doing the same things that got them where they are in the league.”
Heckingbottom conceded that his team had under-performed badly at Middlesbrough and said a big improvement would be needed to secure a result tonight.
“That’s a fair comment, definitely,” he said. “I spoke to Tony (Pulis, Middlesbrough’s manager) and he was over the moon with the way Middlesbrough played. He said it’s the best they’ve played.
“I just worry about us and our form. We want to be competitive against the top six when they perform and play their best game, otherwise we’re not going to break into that. That’ll never change. You’ve got to have aspirations to be higher and be at the top end so playing against the big clubs on form is a good barometer.”
Wolves’ dramatic rise to the top of the Championship, following on from a 15th-place finish last season, has focused attention on the relationship between the club’s owner, Fosun International, and Portuguese agent Jorge Mendes.
Mendes is seen as the power behind several of Wolves’ more high-profile transfers, including a £15m purchase of Portugal international Neves from Porto, and Leeds are among a group of Championship clubs who want the EFL and the Football Association to examine whether Mendes’ influence complies with their rules.
Nuno, Wanderers’ manager, is one of a number of Mendes clients taken on by Wolves but he dismissed the calls for an investigation yesterday, saying: “I don’t care. It’s an issue that doesn’t concern me or worry me because I trust completely the club and what the club is doing.
“Wolves is Wolves, agents are agents, other clubs are other clubs. I only care and focus on Wolves and our daily work.”