The last thing Marcelo Bielsa would want is for Leeds United to let the occasion swallow them but any pretence of Saturday’s derby with Sheffield United being the next fixture in a very long line of them was blown out of the water by Pontus Jansson.
“The biggest game of our lives” Jansson billed it on Tuesday and some in the stands at Elland Road will feel that way when the whistle goes. In a decade-and-a-half of simple living, the enormity of Saturday’s match ranks alongside that of almost any other Leeds have staged; a promotion contest which will settle nothing on the day but might come to be seen as definitive in time.
The club have been working towards it since their 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion at the start of this month, aware that one pivotal clash with a top-six club was leading rapidly to another. Players at Leeds and Sheffield United have mentioned each other in passing, ever wary of being seen to disregard other opponents in between, but this is the one: a game between two sides who would be level in every respect which matters had Sheffield United not thrown away a 3-0 lead in the last eight minutes at Aston Villa in February.
The margin which matters most is Leeds’ top-point advantage, a small but significant difference with only nine matches left. Sheffield United’s best-case scenario is that they reach the international break after Saturday’s derby a point to the good. Leeds know a victory will take them five clear. Chris Wilder, Sheffield United’s ever-quotable manager, described it as “a humdinger”.
Elland Road sold out in no time and Sky Sports picked the game up for a live broadcast, the most obvious choice the broadcaster has made all season. Jansson’s comment was part of a wider plea for Leeds’ supporters to fill the ground an hour before a 12.30pm kick-off, to whip up the atmosphere while Bielsa’s players were warming up.
Fever pitch is the phrase but both Bielsa and Wilder would want their players to keep some of the emotion at arm’s length.
“It’s a big game for us,” said Pablo Hernandez, the most experienced player in Bielsa’s squad. “I know all the people are waiting for this game now but what’s more important is that we’ve arrived in a good moment with a lot of confidence. We’re playing in front of our fans and we have their support. We play with a 12th man and I can’t wait for the moment.”
Leeds have had aesthetic appeal all season but the weeks after Christmas became a test of their durability. Despite that, the squad’s swagger has returned at the right time for Sheffield United’s visit. Their defeat of West Brom was an annihilation and Reading got some of the same treatment on Tuesday night. Saturday’s 1-0 win at Bristol City required more resistance but there was a classy edge to Leeds’ defending by a backline who has never looked more in touch with each other.
Sheffield United, though, are surging under Wilder with six wins in eight games. They have been surging under him for almost three years. They lost Gary Madine to an early red card on Tuesday but clung on with their fingernails to beat Brentford 2-0, denying Leeds any additional space to breathe. Wilder’s record as manager is phenomenal – 76 wins from 142 games and only 37 defeats – and Bielsa has come to admire his tactical ingenuity since arriving at Elland Road.
Hernandez was reluctant to dwell on Sheffield United’s form or to think ahead to the possibility of Leeds establishing a five-point gap over them.
“The more important thing for us is not to think about the other teams,” he said. “We know that if we win our games we’ll be promoted. Sometimes I think it’s a mistake when you spend a lot of time watching the other teams – if they lose, if they win. The most important thing is to focus on our games and to try to win them all. If we win there’s no problem, even if the other teams win all their games.”
West Brom conceded to Hernandez after all of 16 seconds and panicked badly in the face of a raucous Elland Road crowd. Saturday is a lunchtime kick-off, rather than a night game, and Jansson’s request for the stands to fill up in advance was one way of countering the sluggish mood which occasionally surrounds early starts.
“We’ll try to do the same (as the West Brom game), to create the same atmosphere in the stands and the same feeling on the pitch,” Hernandez said. “The biggest thing is to give our all on the pitch.
“In the moments when the team does something good we give something to the fans. Sometimes in the bad moments, when we suffer in defence or make some mistakes, the fans support us and give us an extra motivation. It goes both ways.”
Leeds showed momentary weakness a month ago when they lost a game in hand at Queens Park Rangers, foregoing a chance to move to the top of the Championship. Their response since then has been typical of Bielsa’s tenure: three wins from three, eight goals scored and none conceded.
“It’s a good moment for us,” said Hernandez, whose late finish saw off Sheffield United in a 1-0 win at Bramall Lane in December. “The team played a great game (at Reading), very serious in defence with a lot of chances. We scored three goals but we maybe could have scored five or six.
“We have a good feeling of confidence and we didn’t concede any goals in the last three games. Now we’re only thinking about the next big game.” There is no other show in town.