Leeds United v Middlesbrough
NEIL KILKENNY will take a temporary leave of absence from Leeds United duty tonight firmly believing 2011 can be even more memorable than last year.
The 25-year-old is due to fly out to join the Australia squad ahead of the Asia Cup getting underway in Qatar next week.
Kilkenny could be away for up to five weeks, meaning that after today's Yorkshire derby with Middlesbrough he is in line to miss four Championship games and the FA Cup third round trip to Arsenal.
His loss will be keenly felt by Leeds but the Australian is confident that his team-mates can maintain the impressive form that means they go into the meeting with Boro on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run.
United's Socceroo said: "I think we are higher in the table than we thought we would be when the season started.
"Obviously, we wanted to be in the top half but this is a position that we can really build on.
"If you are first, you have all the pressure on you. So, if we are in the same position with 10 or 15 games to go then we can really go for it.
"For the past year or so, I have been saying we have the basis for a very good team.There are a lot of hungry players here and a lot are young to mid-20s. They are striving to play at the highest level.
"When you have that hunger mixed in with a touch of experience, it can only be a good thing. This club wants to achieve things. The players here now are hungry and want to get the club up this season. And if not this season, then next season."
Last season was a memorable affair for everyone at Elland Road with a first win at Old Trafford in almost three decades being followed by the clinching of automatic promotion from League One.
After an initially topsy-turvy start this time around that left Leeds in 16th place towards the end of October, Simon Grayson's men have forced their way into the race for the Premier League.
United's attacking approach means they go into today's
meeting with Boro as the Championship's top scorers with 44 goals. The flipside, though, to such a cavalier attitude is that only three clubs – Crystal Palace, Preston North End and Leicester City – have conceded more than the Yorkshire outfit.
Nevertheless, Kilkenny insists the coming year could be every bit as special as the last 12 months. He said: "The past year has been a good one. My one disappointment was we didn't go up as champions.
"The main objective was to go up automatically and we did that but, personally, it would have been nice to win the league.
"Since then, we have done well in the Championship and I am hoping 2011 will be even better than the year that has just ended.
"It could be a special season. I look at the Championship and there are probably 14 or 15 teams who can still make the play-offs.
"There are a lot who will fancy going on a run but we are up there. Consistency is everything.
"You look at teams like Portsmouth and they have a good starting XI. A lot of those players have been in the Premier League. They are in the bottom half but I think they will be in or around the top come the end of the season."
United will be without George McCartney today due to the Sunderland left-back's loan spell having come to an end.
Grayson will look to extend the deal before Tuesday's visit to Cardiff City, who are trying to hijack Leeds' bid to keep Andy O'Brien at Elland Road.
The Bolton defender joined on loan towards the end of October but that deal runs out after the trip to Wales. He was expected to either sign permanently in January or extend his loan but Cardiff manager Dave Jones has launched an 11th hour bid to steal O'Brien away.
Leeds remain confident of winning the battle to ensure the defender is available for the Cup trip to Arsenal a week today.
One man who will not be featuring at the Emirates Stadium is Kilkenny, who started his career as a trainee with the Gunners before joining Birmingham City.
He said: "To be completely honest, I think Arsenal were the worst team we could have got.
"They are a great team and Arsene Wenger, after what happened to Manchester United, will put out a strong team. Hopefully, we can handle that as it is a great opportunity for us."