Leeds United fans must be feeling a familiar sense of dread following their 2-0 defeat at Cardiff City on Sunday. Ahead of the resumption of the Championship season, the Whites were odds on favourite to earn automatic promotion back to the Premier League at the end of the campaign. But Leeds were in a similar position last year as well and a poor end to the campaign meant that they only ended in the playoff positions.
And the heartbreak against Derby County over the two legs of the play-off semi-final meant Leeds’ dream of reaching the promised land of the Premier League remained a dream.
Leeds United midfield Adam Forshaw tempted fate ahead of the resumption of the season when he termed promotion to the Premier League a ‘formality’. The scars of last year remain etched in the memories of the Whites fans and the players. The scenes of heartbreak at Elland Road against Derby County are too fresh.
The Yorkshire giants are still level on points with Championship leaders West Brom and have a seven-point cushion over teams outside the top two automatic promotion spots. But Marcelo Bielsa and players are unlikely to take anything for granted in the last eight games of the season, especially in a league as volatile as the Championship.
The Leeds fans are the last ones who are likely to feel overconfident about their prospects. Their team have been out of the top flight for more than a decade-and-a-half and they have seen too many false dawns in that period. The shattered faces of the Elland Road faithful and the drooping shoulders of Leeds players following Derby County’s fourth goal in the second leg of the playoff semi-final last season is there for all to see in a brilliant Amazon documentary.
The Road Ahead for Leeds
Leeds have eight games in hand to defend a seven-point lead in the top two automatic promotion spots. While winning the Championship on their way to the Premier League would be nice, Marcelo Bielsa and his men will bite anyone’s hands off to finish second and reach the Promised Land.
They have a big game on Saturday at Elland Road where they will host third-placed Fulham. An away win for the west London side will cut down the Whites’ lead in the automatic promotion spots to just four points. A victory at home for Leeds is likely to kill Fulham’s automatic promotion charge.
But another defeat at home on Saturday could send shockwaves across the squad and the fans. A four-point lead is more precarious than a seven-point lead and the Championship’s volatile nature will likely increase the palpitations at Elland Road. Leeds still have tricky away trips at Blackburn, Swansea and Derby County in their remaining fixtures. Bielsa will look for near-perfection at home in order to seal promotion to the Premier League.
Leeds are dreading another season in the Championship
While Marcelo Bielsa has done wonders with the limited budget he has been afforded at Leeds, owner Andrea Radrizzani has still ploughed in a significant amount of money to take the club forward.
But there is universal acceptance at Leeds that another season in the Championship could spell doom for them. Bielsa is one of the highest-paid managers in the second tier of English football and it is more or less clear that Leeds cannot afford to pay the wages of big earners such as Kiko Casilla and Patrick Bamford if they remain in the Championship next season.
Kalvin Phillips is likely to listen to overtures from a significant number of the Premier League clubs ahead of next season if the Whites don’t get promoted. Leeds worked hard to convince him to sign a new contract last year but the urge to play in the top tier could be too much for him to resist this time around.
And most importantly, it would be close to impossible to convince Bielsa to stick around for another year if Leeds do not get promoted. It is safe to say that the Argentine’s arrival in 2018 rejuvenated the club and he has been the most important reason why the Whites are considered as one of the best teams in the Championship. He has developed into a cult figure at Leeds and is likely to go down as one of the club’s legendary managers if they get promoted.
But another season in the Championship could mean the Radrizzani and Leeds director of football Victor Orta is likely to be forced into the difficult job of finding a replacement for the Argentine. Leeds in the Premier League would be a good sell to any talented young manager in Europe but Leeds in the Championship with a truncated budget and the prospect of selling some of their best players are unlikely to be attractive to the calibre of managers they would want.