AUGUST 11. Marcelo Bielsa has now overseen 16 victories in his Leeds United tenure but the 4-1 triumph at Derby County was one of the best of them.
A Rams side well-touted for promotion under Frank Lampard were blitzed by a Kemar Roofe double, either side of strikes from Mateusz Klich and Gjanni Alioski.
Yet Bielsa expects nothing like the same one-way traffic at Elland Road this evening with “both teams very different” since.
Bielsa’s Whites hinted they could be capable of something special in the game that preceded the August trip to Pride Park when Gary Rowett’s Stoke City were readily dismissed 3-1 at Elland Road. The Potters arrived in West Yorkshire as pre-season title favourites.
Five months later, with the Staffordshire side 14th and eight points off the play-offs, Rowett has been given the chop with former Luton Town boss Nathan Jones now asked to turn the Stoke juggernaut around.
Back in August, just six days after pasting the Potters, Bielsa’s Whites steam-rollered another side well-touted for promotion in Lampard’s Derby but in even more impressive fashion and in their own back yard.
Yet unlike Rowett’s Potters, Bielsa is aware of the gradual path of progression since at Derby who will now arrive at Elland Road having lost just one of their last seven games – three of which have resulted in victory – putting Derby sixth and only six points off the automatic promotion places.
Leeds and Norwich occupy those positions – Bielsa’s men still top of the pile – but the Whites’ head coach is keen to stress that his side and Derby are now different outfits to the ones that stepped out at Pride Park on August 11.
“Derby’s not the same team anymore,” said Bielsa, asked if he was expecting a different game this time, a tighter game and a tighter scoreline.
“They are a lot better now as a team, so I don’t think it’s going to be the same game.
“We have the conditions to try to win against this opponent. But we can’t rely on the fact we played against them five months ago.
“I don’t think they will be similar games because both teams are very different.”
Back in August, United approached what was their first away assignment under Bielsa following their storming success against Stoke.
Five months on, Leeds are looking to bounce back from consecutive league losses for the first time in Bielsa’s reign and three straight defeats in all competitions following Sunday’s 2-1 loss at QPR.
And at least four members of the Whites’ starting XI from August’s clash at Pride Park will be missing this evening with defenders Barry Douglas and Gaetano Berardi both injured.
Kalvin Phillips also serves the second game of a three-match ban for his sending off in the New Year’s Day loss at Nottingham Forest while Samu Saiz has departed for La Liga side Getafe having asked for a return home to Spain for personal reasons.
Another Spaniard, United’s pivotal playmaker Pablo Hernandez, is also a huge doubt for tonight’s clash with a thigh problem.
But Derby too have their own concerns – notably with Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson an injury doubt – and Bielsa is not a man for making excuses.
Whilst United’s injury problems are well documented, skipper Liam Cooper is now back after his knee problem and Bielsa is also able to call on a refreshed Roofe, Mateusz Klich and Pontus Jansson – all of whom were rested for last weekend’s FA Cup loss at Loftus Road.
“Klich needed to rest,” said Bielsa. “He played all the games, 33 in total. He played all the games with us and his national team. Pablo had the injury he still has now.
“Jansson had a small problem that now is over. Cooper came back after several weeks of absence. Roofe also had a small problem that now is over.
“It was good also for him to get some rest.”
Asked, given the injuries, whether victory against Derby would be his most satisfying win so far, Bielsa said: “The problems the team has are not an excuse not to try to win the game. If you have a look, Pablo and Douglas are missing and we can find a solution for both positions.”
Young duo Tyler Roberts at no 10 and Leif Davis at left-back appear to be faced with the task of solving those problems with Bielsa already confirming that Roberts will fill the role behind striker Roofe should Hernandez miss the game through injury.
Tom Pearce and Alioski appear the other most likely alternatives at left-back.
Lampard, meanwhile, is set to make a late call on star man Wilson who missed last Saturday’s FA Cup third-round tie with Southampton owing to a hip problem though defender Scot Malone is back in contention having missed the last four matches with a groin injury.
Echoing the thoughts of Bielsa, the Rams boss expects and hopes tonight’s clash at Elland Road to be rather different to the one in August.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said the former England star. “It’s a tough match.
“They played very well and beat us at Pride Park. But I feel we’ve improved a lot since then.
“They have done very well and the league table doesn’t lie.
“It’s a big test for us but we need to believe in ourselves. If we can claw back some points on the likes of Leeds, then great.”