VICTORY over Middlesbrough, irrespective of the personalities involved, was the perfect start to a week which promised to get no easier.
Few fixtures look more difficult in the Championship than Wolverhampton Wanderers away but Leeds United’s performance on Sunday gave tomorrow’s game at Molineux a slightly different complexion.
When attention turned away from Garry Monk’s return to Elland Road over the weekend it focused instead on Thomas Christiansen’s attempt to vindicate United’s continuing faith in him but according to midfielder Ronaldo Vieira, the club’s head coach was never the issue in the minds of his players.
This week, Vieira said, was about staying in touch with the play-off positions and “getting the momentum going again.”
One win over Boro, and a very dedicated win at that, was all it took to give Leeds’ squad the sense of being back in the tent. But for Boro’s late penalty, Leeds would have finished the weekend inside the Championship’s top six on goal difference, a remarkable statistic given their glut of seven defeats in nine matches.
“We faced one of the best teams in the league,” said a satisfied Christiansen, “and we were better than them.”
Tomorrow’s trip to Molineux is arguably a meeting with the best team in the league and a club in Wolves whose continental revolution over the summer clicked instantly. They lead the division with 38 points have won six of their last seven games.
It is a different fixture to Barnsley away on Saturday, a side in the bottom half, but Oakwell in United’s experience is a highly unhappy hunting ground.
It seemed crucial in several respects that Sunday’s clash with Boro gave Leeds a spring in their step.
“It was very, very important,” Vieira said. “We’ve got tough games coming up and winning this game gives us that extra boost to go on and win more of them.
We’ve got tough games coming up and winning this game gives us that extra boost to go on and win more of them. Our aim is the top six and that’s what we’re trying to do.Leeds United’s Ronaldo Vieira
“Our aim is the top six and that’s what we’re trying to do. Right now we’re still on track but we’ve got to get the momentum going from this. We’ve got to win more games.”
Christiansen’s choice of team against Boro was an effort on his part to carry over the impetus which he felt his players produced in part of the second half of a 3-1 defeat to Brentford before the international break. Much of what he saw on Sunday, against a Boro side whose financial value did not translate into footballing clout, might tempt him to persist with some of the changes.
Kemar Roofe started up front, ahead of an ill Pierre-Michel Lasogga, and was involved in the build-up for both of United’s goals. Christiansen paired Vieira with Kalvin Phillips in the centre of midfield – leaving out Eunan O’Kane in favour of a partnership with an average age of 20 – and watched them stifle Grant Leadbitter and Jonny Howson.
The United boss refused to outline the shortcomings he had spotted in Boro beforehand, saying only that Leeds’ goals had exposed one of them. Pablo Hernandez’s opener on 24 minutes came after young Boro right-back Connor Roberts failed to track his run to the far post and Gjanni Alioski struck early in the second half when Hernandez was given time to cross from his wing.
“I would like to keep that (Boro’s weaknesses) to myself,” Christiansen said, “but in the goals, if you analyse them, you will see one of them.”
Vieira said he and Phillips had purposely aimed to set about Monk’s midfield. A combative game saw eight bookings and plenty of niggle.
“I thought we were tougher,” Vieira said. “I thought we chased the ball with a higher intensity. Me and Kalv spoke to each other and said ‘let’s just fight’, not just for us but for the whole team.
“We worked hard in these last two weeks (during the international break) and we knew the space would be out wide. We worked on the crosses, the finishing and on the opposite winger getting into the box. That’s what happened – Pablo scored and Alioski scored, so all good.”
Vieira has endured a slow burn under Christiansen, a player rarely used until his first league start of the season at Bristol City coincided with a 3-0 win last month.
The 19-year-old has held his place since then and is in line to start at Molineux again tomorrow.
He voiced support of Christiansen after Sunday’s win, describing United’s head coach as “a good man for the job”.
“I enjoy working with him,” Vieira said. “Obviously I wasn’t playing at the start but I don’t blame him for that.
“It’s just what he thinks is best for the team.
“When you’re not playing it’s like your confidence is lost a little bit but when you get into the team, start playing and getting good performances in, the confidence of playing boosts you. It’s hard to drop your level.”
Wolves lead the Championship by two points from Sheffield United and have lost only three games all season.
A solitary defeat at Molineux came against Cardiff City in August. Their Brazilian striker, Leo Bonatini, is the division’s leading finisher and no side in the division have scored more goals.
“We’re pretty confident,” Vieira insisted. “It’s another three points, just like (Sunday).”