Huddersfield Town were confident of avoiding relegation even before Marcelo Bielsa told their manager he expects them to pull away from trouble in January but Leeds United look the real deal now.
The Terriers took plenty of plaudits from Saturday’s West Yorkshire derby, but United’s ruthlessness gave them a 2-0 victory.
Injury-ravaged Huddersfield were the better side in the first half and could take great heart from the youngsters asked to do men’s jobs but Leeds – disrupted by a calf injury to captain Liam Cooper – stayed in the game, took their chances and wore down their opponents.
Town have two points from a possible 15, and Middlesbrough’s 1-0 win at Charlton Athletic dropped them to 21st in the Championship but forward Josh Koroma, who impressed on his full Championship debut, is confident.
“We have a lot of big players not playing, and we went toe to toe with them, especially in the first half,” he argued. “It just shows how good our young players are and how good our team spirit is.
“None of the group believe we’ll go down because of the quality in the changing room.”
With 10 players missing from a squad he complained before the match was unbalanced, Huddersfield manager Danny Cowley reiterated his need for signings, and Bielsa expects them to have the desired effect.
“He just said, ‘In January you will be a team on the way up,’” Cowley revealed.
Bielsa’s endorsement will mean a lot to the Huddersfield manager, who spoke warmly before and after the game about a “pioneer” of world football.
Leeds are in a three-way fight for two promotion places with West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, having been denied in last season’s play-offs.
“They won’t fall short this season,” insisted Cowley.
What was encouraging for both sides was the progress made by youngsters, but Ezgjan Alioski, whose stunning 51st-minute volley broke the deadlock before Pablo Hernandez headed a second, pointed out it was not just inexperienced players Bielsa has improved.
Recalled from his loan at Boston United, Demeaco Duhaney made just his second Terriers appearance, his first this season. Both sides brought on debutants – Oliver Casey for Leeds, Kian Harratt for Huddersfield.
“This is what happens in adversity, this is how careers begin,” said Cowley.
“I thought Josh did great, a great bit of skill to play Karlan (Grant) in at the start of the second half and a great cross for Kacha (Elias Kachumba), he could easily have created two goals for us.”
It has been a big jump for Koroma, who was leading the line for Leyton Orient in last season’s Conference.
“It’s been hard because I’m used to playing every week,” he explained. “You try to pick up things from the players in your position and when you get your chance, you’ve just got to try and take it.
“At Orient, it was more ‘get the ball to me’. But at this level you have to defend as a team because if one person’s not on it you will get punished, especially against a side like Leeds.
“I’ve always felt ready, it was just about if my chance was going to come and thankfully it was in a game as big as this.”
Winger Alioski has had to adapt, too, often used at left-back this season, and wing-back on Saturday.
“I’m a stronger person (for working with Bielsa), tactically much better and cleverer,” he said. “I think later (in our careers) we will all be saying, ‘Thank you very much Marcelo.’
“With the system we play and the style that Marcelo Bielsa wants, it’s nice to play at left-back because you can attack, defend and play the game you want. You have a lot of space.
“My idols were always Marcelo and Roberto Carlos, who are left-backs. When Marcelo plays you don’t need to watch the other players because he can teach you so many things about playing left-back.
“I’d like to play like them and my shot on Saturday was like Roberto Carlos!
“Marcelo (Bielsa) likes us to defend but left-backs now are expected to attack a lot. You need a lot of power but our fitness is really strong.”