Two of the best teams in the Championship right now face off at Elland Road on Friday night. Leeds and Derby are on fire and full of confidence, but something has to give when Steve McClaren’s Derby head up to West Yorkshire. Which team will land a promotion blow?
Looking Like Contenders
Garry Monk came to Elland Road with a question mark over his head, having lost the Swansea job while the team was nosediving in the Premier League. He was yet another English to lose his way after early acclaim.
But the signs at Leeds are very promising. And you have to say he’s been handed a fine squad to work with, packed with players who either belong at the highest level or have got experience on that stage.
Let’s not forget that Leeds were a Champions League team only 15 years ago and will be itching to get back to the top division.
Bridcutt Bossing It
Leeds have found a new gear since Liam Bridcutt came back into the team from injury and haven’t lost any of the games he’s played in since then. It’s a mystery why the Scottish midfielder couldn’t make the grade at Sunderland.
Because he’s probably too good for Championship football, with a subtle passing style and awareness of danger that makes Leeds a far stronger unit when he’s fit. Leeds also got Bridcutt for next to nothing, and he’s looking like a player that could get them back up to the Premier League.
Pablo the Pick
Another player who could probably make a difference in a top league is Pablo Hernández, who worked with Monk at Swansea. Where he was a wideman in the past the former Valencia man has a creative central role and has a burgeoning relationship with Bridcutt in the middle.
He’s also just signed on permanently at Elland Road, and despite missing a couple of months to injury he’s lit up the league when fit with creativity and moments of improvisation.
Collectively they haven’t always been watertight this season, but man-for-man it’s hard to find a better defence in the league. Here Pontus Jansson, on loan from Torino has shone.
The Swedish international has been ably assisted by two former Arsenal prospects. Luke Ayling has fought his way up the system with Yeovil and Bristol City, while Kyle Bartley was another of Monk’s charges at Swansea who has taken Championship football in his stride.
Bartley is also second top-scorer behind Chris Wood, with four in the league.
Pace to Burn
And finally on the flanks are a couple of wingers who are unlikely to get into scoring positions but create some width and give the midfielders extra room to work in.
Hadi Sacko is another loanee from a big European club, having arrived from Sporting in the summer. He’s started almost every league match this season and loves to dribble, having taken on more players in half a season than any Leeds player in the whole of 2015-16.
Leeds Predicted Lineup:
Green: Ayling, Bartley, Jansson, Berardi; Bridcutt, O’Kane; Sacko, Hernández, Doukara; Wood
The former England boss has had his ups and downs, but nobody can deny the impact Steve McClaren has had in his second stint at Pride Park. The Rams have charged up the league and are now vying for the play-off places just behind Leeds.
In his first spell at Derby he built on the stability that Nigel Clough brought, and but for an inexplicable collapse in 2014-15 could have guided the club into the Premier League.
This time the team was down in 20th when he took over, but have lost just twice since then, winning ten and drawing three.
If you needed proof that Derby are one of the country’s form teams at the moment you need only look at their showing in the FA Cup against West Brom last weekend. The Rams fought all afternoon and booked their place in the next round with a 1-2 win despite hardly seeing the ball in the second half.
If you’re planning a flutter on Monk’s exciting Leeds team you’ve got to remember that Derby aren’t used to losing matches and can get a result with just a couple of chances.
So what makes Derby so resilient? The answer lies with three men, the Irish centre-back pairing of Alex Pearce and Keogh, and goalkeeper Scott Carson.
What’s special about Pearce is that he had never looked reliable until this season, and was shipped out to Bristol City last year. But Steve McClaren, the man who signed him on a free from Reading, has given him confidence and made him a cornerstone of the defence.
There’s a potent combination of skill and experience in the middle for Derby. Former Leeds player Bradley Johnson has seen it all and tasted top-flight football with Norwich.
And then in Will Hughes you have an elegant playmaker who makes the right decisions on the ball, while Tom Ince is having his best season for a few years and is always a threat at Championship level.
But a Faltering Attack
Before their cup heroics the goals had started to dry up for Derby in December. Czech striker Matěj Vydra has managed just two all season, losing the scoring form that helped Watford in the Premier League in 2014-15.
Darren Bent hasn’t had much luck either, and the Rams have turned to David Nugent who has a proven record at Championship level and won promotion with Leicester and Middlesbrough. Leeds were rumoured to be in for him and may regret missing out on Friday.
Derby County Predicted Teamsheet:
Carson; Baird, Pearce, Keogh, Anya; Hughes, Johnson, Butterfield; Ince, Nugent, Russell
When Will Leeds vs Derby Take Place?
The match kicks off at 19:45 GMT on Friday 13 January. Did you know you can stream this match for free with BET365? Find out how here.
Leeds vs Derby Match Prediction
We’ve got what could be a first-rate game of football on our hands here. Both sides are peppered with players who could make a living in the tip flight and it’s no surprise to see them power into the top seven these last few months.
If you want to place a bet, backing Leeds looks like the safer choice. They have the home advantage and there are signs of Derby’s revival stuttering, with no wins in their last two league matches. This match should be the Championship at its best and we’re predicting Leeds to run out 2-1 winners.