Aston Villa v Leeds United '“ Dedicated Bielsa feels '˜ill at ease' with Whites fans' devotion

THE distance between Villa Park and The Hawthorns is only four miles, but it will hopefully seem like many more by mid-afternoon tomorrow for Leeds United.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa (Picture: Tony Johnson).
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa (Picture: Tony Johnson).

For those Leeds supporters gathered at one of the great cathedrals of English football it will be a marquee occasion – played out in front of a crowd in excess of 40,000 – that will remind them what their heroes are striving to experience on a regular basis next season back in the big time.

And a positive performance and result would lay a few ghosts from events at The Hawthorns 43 days earlier.

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Leeds have travelled a fair way since that painful 4-1 loss, although head coach Marcelo Bielsa is under no illusions that they have many more roads to negotiate – no matter how well things are currently looking for the Yorkshire club – if they are to reach their desired destination come May.

Not much eludes the astute Argentinian and while his Leeds side have won all five matches since calling in at West Brom he is plainly not the sort to engage in forecasts.

Victory over a Villa side who are getting their act together after a sluggish start to the season, and are hovering dangerously just outside of the top six, would increase leaders Leeds’s advantage over the Midlands club to 15 points.

To many observers that scenario would preclude Villa from being seen as a direct threat to Leeds, but Bielsa is not interested in hypothesis.

With good reason with his citing of the experiences of Middlesbrough back in 2015-16 a highly pertinent one.

Boro were promoted in second spot that season, but only after finishing above Brighton on goal difference.

Boro had been eight points clear of third place in mid-January 2016 and 11 points ahead of the Seagulls with a game in hand.

But promotion is not won in December or January, with promotion fates only determined when the ‘daffodils come out’ as former Villa chief Steve Bruce famously used to say. Bielsa would be in full agreement.

On facing Villa and potentially eliminating them as a rival, Bielsa said: “It is the last rival that we have not played against. It is a team with a very significant offensive strength.

“They are good in collective play and good in their individual play. So if we take into account these aspects then there are many common points in the game with West Brom.

“But as it is a very long competition, and as the play-offs offer many possibilities, any conclusion will be premature.

“For any lucid observer it would be irresponsible to predict because we have only played half of the games so far.

“If you ask me do Aston Villa have the players to get promoted? Yes. Do they have the structure? Yes. Do they have a brilliant head coach? Of course.

“But you have more than six teams with all these things in place. We cannot draw conclusions now. We have to wait until the end. Normally I would say you cannot lose 15 points. But the other day I was told that when Middlesbrough got promoted they had a 12-point lead and they lost it.”

Bielsa may guard against complacency, but one thing that is cast-iron this Christmas is the fact that he has helped Leeds followers believe and stick their chests out with justifiable pride – and a touch of swagger – again.

Leeds are the team that everyone in the Championship are talking about with Bielsa deified by their fans.

His messianic appeal is such that a charity song paying homage to his revolution entitled Bielsa Rhapsody was brought out for Christmas.

In keeping with his humble, self-effacing nature, the 63-year-old admits to being slightly embarrassed by the attention.

Obsessive about his work and in love with his craft, Bielsa is merely happy that others are deriving pleasure from his side’s efforts so far.

He said: “It is very important for me to develop the feeling they (supporters) have for the club. They give me an importance that I think I do not deserve.

“Affection is the maximum aspiration for a human being. It makes me very thankful. But you have to be careful in evaluating the reasons.

“In this case I do not think I deserve the recognition I am getting. I feel ill at ease.”

Paying tribute to the collective efforts of his players on and off the pitch, Bielsa continued: “What I see is that we have a group of players who are very capable and are involved in the project and the institution, and involved with the public.

“This group of players would follow any kind of project because I think that there is identification of the players with the team, the city and the fans than the project.”

Negotiating the hectic demands of his first Christmas working in English football will provide something novel in the lengthy coaching career of Bielsa.

But the thoughts of others are being drawn to January too – and possible new arrivals to a squad which will be without Samuel Saiz.

For his part, Bielsa is keen to add some perspective and logic regarding the opening of the new year transfer window and the prospect of significant business and gives the impression that should Leeds make no major moves he will be happy to back his coaching acumen by working to develop what he has already has.

He said: “The possibility of strengthening the team is hypothetical. It is not concrete.

“There are some clear facts. For example we have less players than at the beginning of the season.

“But to add players and at the same time increase the level of the team is not easy.

“Only if we find players better than the ones who left will it be a good addition to the team.

“We also have to take into account his adaptation to a new team.”