Leeds United v Fulham: Whites stronger now, says Phillips

LEEDS UNITED midfielder Kalvin Phillips insists the Yorkshire club is over the spectacular collapse in form that last season handed tonight's opponents Fulham a play-off place.

Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips is brought down by Preston's Ben Pearson, earning him a red card during Saturday's game. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

The Elland Road club’s campaign imploded in the final few weeks of 2016-17 as an eight- point advantage over the Cottagers on April 1 was overhauled in stunning fashion by Slavisa Jokanovic’s men.

Five points eventually separated the two clubs in the final Championship table as the London club qualified for the play-offs in sixth place to condemn Leeds to a summer of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

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Now, though, United are looking forward and not back following a pep talk from new head coach Thomas Christiansen in the summer.

Chris Wood celebrates scoring against Bolton. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

“I believe this is a stronger group (than last season),” said Phillips, ahead of a contest that is expected to comfortably be Leeds’s stiffest of the fledgling season.

“We have got all the new signings, plus Pontus (Jansson) and (Hadi) Sacko signing (permanently for the club). There is more confidence in the team knowing that they (Jansson and Sacko) are here permanently, and will play here week-in, week-out.

“Last year was a great starting point to put the belief in the squad. But we know what we can do and we know how high we can get in the table.”

United’s implosion began on the first day of April as a 1-0 defeat at Reading sparked a collapse in form so bad that only one of the final eight games was won and four lost.

Chris Wood celebrates scoring against Bolton. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

It was a dramatic turn of events totally unforeseen around Elland Road, not least because Garry Monk’s men had signed off before the international break a fortnight earlier with a superb 2-0 win over Brighton & Hove Albion.

Asked if it was still hard to fathom out exactly what went so wrong, Phillips – who featured in all eight of those games in the run-in – replied: “Yes, we just couldn’t get the right results at the end of the season and Fulham went on a really good run.

“There are always regrets and stuff like that, but you have just got to carry on. When the new manager came in, he mentioned last season, but then said, ‘Forget about it’. That is what we are trying to do. I think we have done that really well.”

Fulham, like Leeds, are unbeaten this season following back-to-back draws against Norwich City and Reading. The point earned at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday was particularly precious due to the dismissal after just 30 seconds of defender Tomas Kalas, who will miss tonight’s visit to West Yorkshire as a result.

Despite the absence of the Chelsea loanee, the fixture with the London club is expected to be a decent gauge as to United’s promotion credentials.

Both meetings last season ended level at 1-1, Leeds equalising in stoppage-time through Chris Wood almost exactly a year ago and Tom Cairney then doing the same for Fulham at Craven Cottage in March.

That stalemate at Elland Road on August 16 was the start of Wood’s most impressive season, his 27 goals ensuring the Kiwi claimed the golden boot in the Championship.

Wood’s impressive strike-rate attracted plenty of admirers and Burnley had a £12m offer rejected before the weekend. It is unclear whether the Clarets will return with a higher bid before the transfer deadline, but Christiansen remains confident that Wood will stay with the Championship club. So much so, in fact, that the Dane has not felt it worth discussing the rebuffed offer from Burnley with Wood.

“I haven’t spoken to him,” said Christiansen. “I believe that all the players want to play in the Premier League, but, here, he is an important player. If he goes there he could be first-, second- or third-choice. He will not have the guarantee.

“Here, he is one who can help the team reach its goals. Why not dream that he can also be playing next year in the best league?”

Christiansen has no fresh injury problems, while Rob Green returned to training over the weekend and is expected to take his place on he bench. The situation surrounding Gaetano Berardi and Matthew Pennington, however, remains unclear with the Leeds head coach still waiting to hear the extent of the injuries the pair sustained against Bolton Wanderers nine days ago.

“The medical staff will shortly give us exact diagnosis about the situation of these two players,” he added. “I think next week we will know something.”

As for the challenge tonight facing his side, Christiansen added: “Fulham have a lot of quality in all the lines and they like to have possession all the time. They have fast players up front who move well so we need to be very focused and concentrated.”

Last six games: Leeds United LDDWWD Fulham WDLDWD.

Referee: D Bond (Lancashire).

Last time: Leeds United 1 Fulham 1; August 16, 2016; Championship.