United right-back Scott Wootton is full of respect for tonight’s opponents Derby County but he believes Leeds’ youth, energy and recent good form might be enough to earn them three points. Phil Hay reports.
Derby County in the hands of Paul Clement are starting to resemble a machine but the club’s oldest adversaries, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, have successfully found their weak spots this season.
Leeds drew first blood at the end of August, scoring late at Pride Park to claim a 2-1 win in the days when Clement’s ideas were still to evolve. Since then, Forest’s 1-0 victory in November stands as County’s only other defeat in a season which turned for home on Boxing Day.
Steve Evans, United’s head coach, rates Derby as arguably the best side in the Championship and the stats bear his opinion out. By the conclusion of the fixtures on December 26, they were top of the table. Their goals-for tally was as high as any team and their concessions are fewer than any club bar Middlesbrough. It was the prospect of form like that which encouraged County’s board to pay the compensation needed to prise Clement out of Real Madrid.
Leeds, nonetheless, know they have the beating of his squad. A strong first half at Pride Park – one of the more compelling points of United’s season and a spell in which their midfield made a mess of Derby’s – was rewarded on 88 minutes when Chris Wood beat Scott Carson with a snap-shot from 20 yards. “You can’t just play well for 20 minutes,” said Clement, criticising his players afterwards.
On that afternoon, Leeds were still unbeaten. The teams meet again at Elland Road tonight with United on a run of five games without defeat. Scott Wootton, the club’s right-back, said the secret of Derby’s success was obvious – “they’ve got two quality players in every position – but talked with confidence about the chances of producing another win over Clement’s side this evening.
“We have the fundamentals of a good team,” said Wootton, who has filled in at right-back in the absence of the injured Gaetano Berardi. “We’ve got youth and energy and legs, and that might explain our inconsistency with having such a young team.
“But we’re five games unbeaten and we’ve got a really tough game to look forward to against Derby. We’ve won the last two games at home so hopefully we can keep that going.
“Since the game when we beat them I don’t think they’ve lost too many. They’ve kicked right on. They’ve got two quality players in every position at this level so it’ll be a very, very tough game for us. But hopefully we can turn up and get the points.”
Evans can see the importance of playing to win regardless of the opposition. His attempt to rein in the top six and put Leeds in a position to compete for a play-off position has given him little leeway in terms of results. United’s boss was frustrated by a 1-1 draw at Forest on Sunday, acknowledging the cost of the points dropped as Leeds passed up two glorious late chances.
He threw on Souleymane Doukara and Mirco Antenucci as substitutes in the second half with United trailing to an early strike from Nelson Oliveira. After Sam Byram’s equalised 10 minutes from time, Antenucci failed to complete the fightback after Wootton teed him up perfectly six yards out.
Evans promised to be ambitious in his approach tonight, saying: “I’ve never been a manager who’ll go anywhere and accept a point. I never thought like that at Rotherham United so I’m not going to think like that at Leeds United.
“I’m more likely to put on a striker than a defensive player and I’m sure there were one or two raised eyebrows when we changed the shape at Forest but I wanted to get Doukara in an attacking area and I wanted Antenucci on because I thought he’d create a bit of magic. He almost did. I thought we’d go on and get a winner and our play deserved a winner but it wasn’t to be.”
Evans will make limited changes this evening, resting certain players after an end-to-end finish at The City Ground, but his main tactical decision is likely to come in the centre of defence.
Confusion between Giuseppe Bellusci and Marco Silvestri led to Forest’s goal, giving Oliveira an empty net to shoot at on 18 minutes, and Bellusci’s part in the concession could see Sol Bamba recalled for the first time in almost two months.
Bellusci was caught out by a long ball forward from Matt Mills, failing to clear with an overhead kick and leaving Oliveira to round an out-of-position Silvestri on the edge of United’s box.
Bamba has been sidelined by suspension and a fractured toe but Evans promised that the club’s captain would be used in the Christmas period and Bamba spoke last week about fighting his way back into the team, saying: “When I get my turn I’ll make sure I keep my place.”
Evans said: “Bellusci, we all know he’s been super recently, but he should just head the ball. Then (Oliveira) catches Silvestri in two minds. But you have to deal with that and when we got in at half-time and I told the players that there was nothing in the game. I said ‘forget the score, just go out and play the way we play.’”
Wootton, meanwhile, is expected to be fit to face Derby after suffering a head wound in another collision with team-mate Liam Cooper at Forest.
A coming-together between the pair in a 3-0 win over Huddersfield Town last month saw Cooper stretched from the field but Wootton played on on Sunday despite receiving several stitches at half-time.
“It was just a clash of heads with Cooper, for the second time this season,” Wootton said.
“We keep finding each other’s heads but it wasn’t too bad, just a couple of stitches at half-time and then fine to carry on.”