The pressure grows on Paul Heckingbottom with no promise of any respite at Villa Park tomorrow.
Aston Villa fired up their season by beating Cardiff City on Tuesday night and, in their eyes, a broken Leeds United side are the right opposition at the right time.
Villa sit in must-win territory with four games to play, but a Friday-night meeting with Leeds is a chance to cut the gap to Fulham in second to two points, 24 hours before Fulham host Brentford.
Heckingbottom will be in the eye of that storm, with an ever-weakening vessel around him.
The disarray within United’s camp was categorised perfectly by the team which finished Tuesday’s defeat to Preston, and the defence in particular.
Leeds have lost centre-backs at regular intervals since the end of January and last weekend Heckingbottom was compelled to call up Paudie O’Connor from the academy for a 1-1 draw with Sunderland.
The disarray within United’s camp was categorised perfectly by the team which finished Tuesday’s defeat to Preston, and the defence in particular.Phil Hay
At Deepdale, he found himself pairing O’Connor with another development-squad defender, Spaniard Hugo Diaz, after Pontus Jansson suffered a head injury in the second half.
Across United’s backline, not one of the players who completed the clash with Preston was first choice in their position at the end of the last transfer window.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Heckingbottom’s goalkeeper, stood third in line a month ago and the back-four in front of him comprised of a winger, a midfielder and two Under-23s.
Diaz, a 21-year-old, grew up at Deportivo La Coruna – the club Leeds signed him from last summer – and has played 18 times for the development squad this season, but a first-team debut at this juncture was entirely unplanned.
Heckingbottom’s original line-up on Tuesday raised as many eyebrows; minus Samuel Saiz, Gjanni Alioski and Pierre-Michel Lasogga after Caleb Ekuban, Jay-Roy Grot and Kemar Roofe were shoehorned into the same team.
The experiment worked for 45 minutes, but fell apart after half-time as Preston scored twice in three minutes to quell Leeds’ impetus. Heckingbottom has toiled through 12 games as head coach and his squad has no shape for tomorrow’s game at Villa Park.
“There’s a bigger picture,” Heckingbottom said. “We’re a small group of players now and a small group of players with young players in there. It’s a tough first experience for them.
“All of a sudden Ronnie (Vieira) and Kalvin (Phillips), 19 and 22, become our experienced players because they’ve played a lot of games for us. It’s a testing time but I’m going to put it on them – on them, Pablo (Hernandez), Stuart (Dallas), the boys who’ve played games. I’ll see how they respond.
“We’ve got to squeeze every little bit out of the team between now and the end of the season and make sure we’re better for it at the end of the season.”
The end of this season is three weeks away and there is too little time left for Leeds to show meaningful improvement now.
Heckingbottom is likely to confirm today whether Pontus Jansson suffered concussion in the controversial incident surrounding Preston’s second goal and the Swede’s absence would leave him with little option but to pair O’Connor and Diaz in the centre of defence against Villa.
Between them they have played 213 minutes of Championship football.
Jansson’s injury at Deepdale was described by Heckingbottom as a “turning point” in the game, although opinion on it was divided.
The Swede went down holding his head after clearing a corner but referee Lee Probert allowed play to continue, despite the Football Association’s directive ordering officials to halt games when players suffer blows of that nature.
Alex Neil, Preston’s manager, all but accused Jansson of feigning injury in an attempt to relieve the pressure which was building after Paul Gallagher’s penalty three minutes earlier.
Heckingbottom accused Probert of a lack of consistency.
The turnaround killed the positivity of a good first half and Heckingbottom struggled to draw any consolation from United’s better spells.
“When we look back at the game you’ve got to give them credit for those things,” he said, “but, at the end of the day, it’s about winning. That’s where we want to get to.
“You’re better for experiences like this, don’t get me wrong, but you have to understand what gets you out of it because when it happens again, you have to get yourself out of it quicker.
“You want the players to appreciate that because it won’t just happen. Some players are going to be really tested now and we’ll see how they respond.
“As the game went on in the first half we got better and stronger.
“We were a threat. It was a poor time for us to concede that penalty, but even then we were still in the game.
“The second goal was the turning point.”
Villa’s 1-0 win over Cardiff, earned by a gem of a volley from Jack Grealish, was a crucial result, helping Fulham into second place and giving Villa a late sniff of automatic promotion.
A beleaguered Heckingbottom has nine players missing through injury and admitted that none were likely to return tomorrow.
“Not as it stands, no,” he said.
The United boss revealed that a knee problem was troubling Lasogga and said he named Saiz on the bench on Tuesday to protect his fitness after recent hamstring trouble.
“Three games in six days is big,” Heckingbottom said. “There’s Pierre’s knee and Samu’s hamstring. We can’t afford to lose any more players.”