Leeds United: The play-offs are still on for United ace Hernandez

Pablo Hernandez
Pablo Hernandez
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United playmaker Pablo Hernandez believes Leeds need to win 10 of their remaining 14 games to reach the play-offs – and believes they can do it despite this season’s rollercoaster form. Phil Hay reports.

Pablo Hernandez laid his cards on the table yesterday and not only in respect of his plea for a new contract. Leeds United have all but exhausted their margin for error and with 14 games of the season to go, Hernandez was unwilling to duck the issue.

Samuel Saiz

Samuel Saiz

“I think it’s simple,” the midfielder said. “We have in front of us 14 games. If you see the points in the last years, if we want to have a chance to finish in the play-off positions, we need to win a minimum of nine or 10 games. It’s this simple.”

Ten wins would shoot Leeds from 45 points to 75, the total they accrued while Garry Monk as head coach at Elland Road last season. It did not qualify the club for the play-offs but the Championship table in 2017 was an anomaly with Fulham, in sixth, on 80. Seventy-five remains the standard benchmark for anyone divorced from the automatic promotion scene.

Leeds, in terms of their current tally, are a mile from that target. In a footballing sense, they are a long way back too. Ten wins from 14 games bears no comparison to eight league games without a win, the run the club are stuck in ahead of tonight’s match at Derby County. The form has already cost Thomas Christiansen his job as head coach and Christiansen’s successor, Paul Heckingbottom, has precious little time to buck the trend this season.

In Hernandez’s head, this evening’s fixture could be decisive unless Leeds find a way to win it. Derby want second place and need the points too but they are not in do-or-die territory yet. Their loss at Sheffield Wednesday last Friday – described by Heckingbottom as “a blip” – was a first league defeat since November and their season should go close to the wire.

Paul Heckingbottom

Paul Heckingbottom

“It’s a difficult game against a good team, in the fourth position,” Hernandez said. “It’s like a final for us and for them I think it’s the same. Maybe for us it’s more important because we know that if we don’t win this game it will be difficult after that to arrive in the play-off positions.”

Hernandez’s calculation prompted another obvious question: do the squad at Leeds have it in them to take 30 points from 14 games? There have been encouraging streaks in the past six months – seven matches unbeaten at the start of the season and six without defeat around Christmas – but a fortnight ago Heckingbottom took control of a team who have not won since Boxing Day. Leeds are clinging to the general theory that someone usually comes from nowhere to gatecrash the play-offs at the death.

Hernandez, who has ebbed and flowed but nonetheless found the craft to carry Leeds in certain moments, thinks everything depends on the club harnessing the blood and thunder of the closing stages of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Bristol City. Two-nil down and in danger of slipping 11 points adrift of six place, Leeds dropped a bomb on Bristol City’s self-assurance and kept the gap to eight but fighting back in the last 18 minutes.

A painfully sarcastic Elland Road crowd were back on board by the end.

“It was important because if we lose the last game at home, our confidence goes down,” Hernandez said. “If we play like the second half we can win every game but we need to play 90 minutes like that. In this league it’s no good with only 45. You need to play a complete game to win games.

“I always try and I always want the ball but sometimes it’s difficult because sometimes you don’t have a good feeling with the ball. You don’t have confidence. Then it’s not easy to want the ball all the time.

“In the last game we saw this in the first half. For all the players it was difficult to keep possession and we lost the ball too easily. In the second half we changed this, we recovered the confidence and we saw that if this team has confidence, we can beat all the teams in this league.”

Hernandez has the benefit of an eventful career to draw on. Now 32, he is the only outfield player at Leeds who is beyond his 20s and despite struggling for much of the game on Sunday, it was the Spaniard who has the presence of mind to come up with two assists. Two other excellent deliveries should have led to a winning goal, the latter headed against the crossbar by Pierre-Michel Lasogga with the final touch of a compelling game. Despite that, he sits on a contract which ends in this summer, by which time he will have reached his 33rd birthday. “I don’t receive anything new from the club,” Hernandez said. “I can’t tell you anything about this.

“I prefer only to focus on the next games and give 100 per cent for the club. I can’t talk about this. I’m very happy here. I feel the fans and my teammates, all the people, would like it if I stay here but it depends not only on me.”

His Spanish roots have been valued by some, not least Samuel Saiz who arrived at Leeds from Huesca last summer. Saiz, a fellow Spaniard, spoke virtually no English but he and Hernandez linked nicely in the first half of the season, underpinning United’s strong start. Their understanding seemed natural.

They have not played together since Saiz was sent off for spitting in Leeds’ FA Cup tie at Newport County last month, a bad error of judgement which brought a red card, a six-match ban and a club fine. Saiz completed his suspension over the weekend and is available at Pride Park tonight. It remains to be seen if his comeback has materialised in time for his skill to make a tangible difference.

“In this time he is frustrated, obviously,” Hernandez said. “Players always want to play but he knows he made a mistake, he paid for this and I think he’s ready to help the team. He’ll learn from his mistake, he’s had a rest and now we need him.”