City travel north for their second top of the table clash in as many fixtures, this time facing off against most Sheffield United fans’ second team; Leeds United. Andrew Lawn spoke to the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Phil Hay for the latest on Spygate, Bielsaball and who’s going to finish the job and get promoted
Andy – So, first question, Saturday is a top of the table clash which surely very few people saw coming after the tonking Leeds gave City back in August. What have you made of City's revival after that miserable trouncing?
Phil - It's been a surprise to me. Norwich looked very soft and were outplayed after the first 15 minutes, although it was quite telling that Marcelo Bielsa felt a 3-0 scoreline was flattering. He thought Norwich had more of the game than that. Back then it felt as if Farke's tenure was drifting in no particular direction but something has obviously fallen into place and Norwich seem to have settled into a very effective rhythm. They've got pace in their side which always helps in the Championship and they've got a striker in Pukki who's scoring at will. It's a classic example of a club where things have suddenly clicked.
It was bit of a watershed game for City fans, in that we all felt the first 15 minutes were some of the best we had played under Farke to that point (and are very reminiscent of how we play much more consistently now), but once you scored, we completely folded. My own feeling was that we weren't 3-0 bad, but it was far from great.
On to Saturday, both City and Leeds have had a little wobble over the festive period, but both picked up good results at the weekend, do you feel like Leeds are settling back in to a rhythm now?
Despite the wobble around the turn of the year, I didn't think Leeds were especially poor in their defeats to Hull or Forest. Against Forest, they played the better football even after Kalvin Phillips' red card but their performance away at Stoke was lacking in imagination. Bielsa said it was as badly as they had played under him, although a 4-1 loss to West Brom in November would run the Stoke display close.
The truth is, Leeds have never really lost their rhythm on Bielsa's watch. They haven't been able to regularly replicate the quality shown in the first month of the season, when they were almost impossible to play against, but they've got a very defined plan, a very defined style of play and they've got the nerve to stick to their strategy even on days like Saturday at Rotherham where for 45 minutes they hit a brick wall. All in all, they're in good shape and (barring injuries, which have been an issue from the get-go) in the sort of shape they'd want to be in for a game like this.
Not unlike City in many ways, it could be a cracker.
Let's touch on Spygate. First off, let me say, I don't see anything wrong with it and is for me a natural extension of the normal analytical prep done at this level as standard, or the marginal gains stuff every single club does. Plus, cards on the table I can think of no better put-down to Frank Lampard's whining than a 90 minute lecture on how to beat them. But, Norwich were of course the first club to come forward as having publicly asked for clarification on what it meant in terms of the EFL Charter, which caused a little meltdown on twitter and much raising of eyebrows in Norfolk, as we all asked ourselves; what is the EFL Charter?! What's the latest as you understand it?
My own view differs slightly, though not by much. Bielsa shouldn't be dispatching scouts to opposition training grounds and the apology made by Leeds to Derby effectively made that point. But it isn't the scandal it's been made out to be and I don't think disciplinary action is necessary. To my mind, Bielsa has been duly admonished (by his own club for a start) and he won't be doing it again. Ultimately, anyone who thinks that Leeds are top of the league on the basis of pre-match scouting trips is deluded. Bielsa's 66-minute media briefing made that point convincingly.
The problem with that briefing was that it riled other Championship clubs and provoked a letter to the EFL from 11 of them. Our understanding is that Norwich instigated the writing of it, which is interesting given that Derby were the aggrieved party in all this. So as it stands: the EFL has that collective complaint on its desk and has been waiting for Leeds to "provide observations" (the usual routine). Bielsa has been interviewed by the FA and it's a case now of waiting to see if either body or both bodies bring charges against him or the club. I imagine they'll be struggling to know themselves how best to deal with this, given that half of the sides in the Championship didn't sign the letter.
For what it's worth, Leeds are prepared to take punishment provided they feel it's reasonable and proportionate. They have, after all, said sorry for what went on so they're not denying that Bielsa was in the wrong.
For me it's no worse than a player making his way to the opposite side of the pitch just before being substituted, it's all pushing the boundaries of the laws to seek an advantage. A slap on the wrist and a clarification of the rules, would suffice. It has at least further stoked the fires for what should be a white-hot atmosphere.
On to the game, both sides have been struggling with injuries recently, how are you expecting Leeds to line up?
I'd be amazed if any club in the league have suffered from more injuries than Leeds this season. They've been endless, going back to the latter weeks of the summer. How much that relates to the intensity of Bielsa's training programme is a moot point but it's no secret that he pushes the players hard, keeps training at an extremely high level and gives them very few days off. The pay-off for all that is first place in the league and a chance of promotion unlike any other Leeds have had since they dropped into the EFL in 2004.
Pontus Jansson is back from a one-game ban, Barry Douglas is fit again after a leg muscle issue but we're yet to hear if the niggle Pablo Hernandez was complaining about at the end of Saturday's win over Rotherham is a problem. If not, then the line-up will be something close to: Casilla, Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski, Forshaw, Harrison, Hernandez, Klich, Clarke, Roofe.
That said, Bielsa loves Kalvin Phillips and it's hard not to think that he would want Phillips in his team. That would mean one of the centre-backs making way or Adam Forshaw dropping out of his defensive midfield role. Big calls. Bielsa being Bielsa, he'll probably tell us his line-up at his press conference on Thursday.
Our own injury issues have been consistent losses of key players, so that it's always 2 or 3 first choice players out also back until August, rather than 9 or 10 in one go. The loss of Mo Leitner is the biggest of those and he'll again be missing Saturday, but there are rumours others (Alex Tettey and Timm Klose) could be back early.
In terms of that shot at promotion, how are confidence levels? Leeds have blown up a few times before after all...
They have blown up before and no-one is more aware of that than Leeds so there's definite caution in among some serious optimism. You'd have to be a soulless not to think that top of the league with 57 points after 29 games gives you every chance and the fact is that Leeds have shown no sign of dropping off under Bielsa yet.
He runs with a very small squad but every time you think his options have been stretched too far, he finds a way of plugging the gap (usually with untested Under-23 players who he's been schooling from the start in the event that they're needed). What he's doing here is pure coaching and I almost feel that promotion will rest on the ability of the players to hold their nerve. They know what they're doing, Bielsa's attitude and tactics won't change and he's set them up perfectly. This is where good teams turn the screw and finish the season off.
Again, the similarities with Farke and City are strong, every time you think a player missing out is going to derail us someone steps up and fills the gap, knowing the job they're required to do.
It seems to be becoming a four-horse race for 2nd place, between us two, Sheffield United and West Brom; where would you put your money right now?
I'm renowned for being the kiss of death in Leeds so they won't thank me for answering this but my gut feeling for a while has been Leeds and West Brom top two with Norwich through the play-offs. Or a variation on that theme.
Chris Wilder keeps doing it at Sheffield United and I wouldn't discount them but those are the three I fancy. Which is probably a good reason to bang your mortgage on the Blades.
I personally fancy Sheffield United over West Brom, purely because they're so different in their style than any other team in the division. That said, I think both us and Leeds will stay top 2 from here on in and West Brom will fall away.
Finally, let's finish on a specific prediction. Having been at Elland Road for Beckford's last gasp winner after Fraser Forster's atrocious goal-kick back in League 1, I am going for a role-reversing last minute winner for City, after a helter-skelter game. We'll take the lead through an Emi Buendia free-kick, then fall 2-1 behind (Roofe and Jannsson), before Tettey smashes a wonder strike from distance to level it up with 20 minutes to go, leaving Rhodes to steal Pukki's last-minute clincher glory, bobbling one off a shin.
Norwich do seem to have the knack of at-the-death winners but Leeds produced a couple of their own either side of Christmas Day.
A helter-skelter game sounds about right and I'm going for 2-2, which I'm pretty sure both sides would settle for once it's all over. The game screams goals.
I would certainly take 2-2 ahead of time, leaving us fresh for Ipswich's visit next Sunday.