Case of defence against attack could be key to Yorkshire rivals' play-off hopes

THE last time Leeds United completed a league double over Sheffield Wednesday, these two old Yorkshire foes were heading in opposite directions.

Leeds United match-winner Chris Wood clears from Sheffield Wednesdays Glenn Loovens (Picture: Steve Ellis).
Leeds United match-winner Chris Wood clears from Sheffield Wednesdays Glenn Loovens (Picture: Steve Ellis).

Just a few months of the new Millennium had elapsed when Harry Kewell’s delightful chip over Kevin Pressman confirmed not only a comfortable 3-0 win at Hillsborough for Leeds, but also left the club on the verge of qualification for the Champions League.

Wednesday, in contrast, were just 10 days away from having their relegation from the top flight confirmed courtesy of squandering a two-goal lead with just 12 minutes remaining against Arsenal at Highbury to draw 3-3.

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Seventeen years on, much has changed with the Gunners now calling the Emirates Stadium home and the Yorkshire duo’s respective immediate futures very much inter-linked.

Chris Wood’s first-half strike settled the latest instalment of a rivalry that stretches back almost a century to ensure Leeds had the bragging rights over the weekend.

But there is every chance these two clubs could meet again come May in the play-offs, either in the semi-finals or at Wembley. Judging by Saturday’s derby encounter, such a meeting would be very, very hard to call.

Both teams have their own strengths and weaknesses with the five strikers at Wednesday head coach Carlos Carvalhal’s disposal enough to make most Championship managers green with envy.

Whites’ head coach Garry Monk, in contrast, must go to sleep every night with his fingers crossed that nothing untoward happens to Wood as there is no one in his squad capable of fulfilling the lone frontman role even remotely as well as the Kiwi.

Where Monk does have the advantage over his Owls counterpart is in defence. As a unit, the United back-line is hugely impressive with the pairing of Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson surely among the most formidable in the Championship.

Throw in Luke Ayling, a bargain buy at £750,000 from Bristol City, and the dependable Gaetano Berardi at left-back and it is easy to understand why Wednesday struggled to create many clear-cut chances despite dominating possession in the second half at Elland Road.

Contrast that with the dreadful error of judgment by Vincent Sasso that gifted Wood the chance he so gratefully accepted plus the ease with which Brentford converted two set-pieces to triumph at Hillsborough last Tuesday and there is little doubt what constitutes the Achilles heel for Wednesday’s promotion bid.

Tom Lees’s imminent return from injury will surely help, as his partnership with Glenn Loovens was a big factor in the Owls getting to Wembley last term. Certainly, Wednesday’s Dutch captain insists there is no need for anyone at Hillsborough to be alarmed in the wake of a second league defeat of the season to Leeds.

“It is always a battle in a derby and I thought we did well,” said Loovens. “We won our battles, played some good stuff and created some great chances. But we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.

“The good thing about this league is you have a chance to bounce back. There are a lot of games to come and we focus on the next one to put it right.

“We have a good group, we know what we can do and there’s no reason for us to be nervous. Football is what we like and what we are used to. So, we shouldn’t have any nerves.”

Next up for the Owls is a home game with Norwich City, one of the sides in the chasing pack hoping to pounce if any of the four sides occupying a play-off place slip up.

Loovens added: “We take it game by game, there is no point thinking too much ahead if you don’t win the first game coming up. Norwich is the first one and we have to make sure we win this. If we win it, we will think about the game after it.”

Such thinking is, of course, understandable. But that will not stop supporters of Wednesday and Leeds – or Huddersfield Town, for that matter – allowing minds to wander towards those potential all-Yorkshire play-off games come May. Things are about to get very, very interesting within the Broad Acres.