Why Leeds United cannot linger on a dismal Easter weekend with Aston Villa on the horizon
The demand for tickets for Sunday’s game against Aston Villa was so overwhelming that Leeds United revised their sales policy at late notice.
Angus Kinnear, their chief executive, called it an “exceptional approach” for a situation in which “the reality is we could have sold 60,000.”
Every single ticket has gone.
So much interest with so much expected to be at stake and yet Leeds wait to see if Villa’s visit to Elland Road, their last home fixture of the regular season, will be anything more than a dead rubber between two teams who know where they are headed.
Villa are already in the play-offs and most likely to feature in the semi-final between fourth and fifth. Leeds’ chase of second place will be over if Sheffield United, at a sold-out Bramall Lane, hold it together against Ipswich Town on Saturday.
The Championship inspires the lingering hope that something will turn on its head at the death but Marcelo Bielsa was not tempted to clutch at straws after Leeds’ defeat at Brentford on Monday, admitting that automatic promotion depended on too many twists of fate.
The play-offs are on his mind and Sunday’s game against Villa, in that context, will be more than a through-the-motions kickabout, no matter how events unfold at Bramall Lane.
For Bielsa it is an opportunity for his players to get back on the horse and steady themselves for the month of May when their hitherto promising season will be settled one way or another.
Easter was brutal for Leeds, stripping the players of the self-assurance which carried them past 80 points, but there is no bigger shot in the arm available to Bielsa than a result which ends a run of results which is breaking records in Birmingham.
Villa are the division’s form team by a street with 10 straight league wins behind them, the longest streak of victories in the club’s history.
Their previous mark of nine was set 109 years ago, a decade before Leeds United were formed.
Twenty three goals scored have come at the cost of only five conceded and the club are doing what many at Villa Park hoped they would do in the Championship, albeit too late to land a glove on the top two.
Villa were 10th in mid-February, eight points back from sixth place, and in terms of the tradition that a team emerges from the wilderness to gate-crash the play-offs, they are the one.
Dean Smith, a lifelong fan, left Brentford to replace Steve Bruce in October and small steps initially have been followed by giant strides during the run-in. Villa have lost seven of his 33 games as manager and are, to coin a phrase, peaking at the right time.
Smith is almost in a position where he could rest players during the final two matches, protecting them for Villa’s second shot at the play-offs in two years. Tammy Abraham will miss the clash at Elland Road with a shoulder injury but Smith hinted at a plan to field his strongest available line-up after seeing off Millwall on Monday.
“They’re going for the automatic positions at the moment so they’ll be going hell for leather,” Smith said. “But we have to too because we want to maintain this run we’re on, to continue it as best we can.”
Villa were beaten in the play-off final by Fulham last season but have seen major changes to their squad since then. One constant in the side is Jack Grealish, in the eyes of many the most naturally talented footballer in the Championship and a player who Smith has engaged brilliantly over the past two months.
Grealish was given the captaincy on his return from injury at the end of February and has driven Villa through win after win, playing in a way which explains why Tottenham tried so hard to throw £25m at him last year.
The 23-year-old, assuming he starts, will play through the middle at Elland Road, the area where Leeds’ defensive problems were most acute against Brentford. Neal Maupay scored Brentford’s opening goal after bursting between Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper and reaching a pass from Sergi Canos, and Canos converted the killer second during a quick exchange of passes which cut United to pieces.
Bielsa took Kalvin Phillips out of his team at Griffin Park, preferring Adam Forshaw against a Brentford side whose attacking line is an out-and-out front three, but Phillips’ destructive qualities might be necessary against the central threat posed by Grealish and John McGinn.
Bielsa’s other prime consideration is how to manage Albert Adomah with Barry Douglas and Gjanni Alioski injured and no specialist left-back available to cover for them. Both players are working to recover for the start of pre-season after undergoing knee surgery.
The machinations of Villa at home might feel immaterial if Sheffield United put automatic promotion to bed on Saturday afternoon but Leeds need a shot in the arm from somewhere and in what could conceivably be a dress rehearsal for the play-off final at Wembley,
Bielsa will be anxious for his side’s imagination to flicker again.
This was not the weekend Leeds envisaged when ticket applications for Villa began piling through the door but it was dealt to them by the worst Easter weekend imaginable and could still focus the mind.
“Our sadness is linked to the fact that we could have changed just a few things to get different results,” Bielsa said on Monday.
He and his players cannot feel sad for long.