Leeds United v Bolton Wanderers – Pivotal period approaches in battle for the title

AS Marcelo Bielsa bade farewell to his Leeds United players ahead of an impromptu winter break with a plan to explore the Yorkshire countryside, there was much to be happy about at Elland Road.

Leeds United's Patrick Bamford: Celebrating scoring the winning goal at Bolton. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Victory over Swansea City, earned on the back of United’s best display in a month, together with a surprise defeat for Norwich City meant top spot in the Championship had been wrestled back from Daniel Farke’s men.

Sheffield United had also won that night so the gap to third place remained at three points but there was a feeling as another bumper home crowd made their way home in elated mood that the momentum had swung the way of the West Riding club.

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Ten days on and there is still plenty to be pleased about for Leeds. But the promotion picture has changed markedly with 4-0 victories for Norwich and the Blades meaning United return to action today looking up at the top two rather than down on an entire division.

Back-to-back wins for West Bromwich Albion since Bielsa’s men last kicked a ball, including a last-gasp winner at Queens Park Rangers in midweek, also mean Darren Moore’s men sit just one point behind Leeds rather than seven.

These gains by their rivals in what looks like being a four-way scrap to finish in the top two means the pressure has been cranked up ahead of a huge week for United.

Bolton, beaten 4-0 by Norwich a week ago, kick things off today by making the trip over the Pennines. Another sell-out crowd will be expecting a resounding home win but Bielsa insists the only thing that matters is collecting another three points.

“The expectancy is due to the fact Norwich won 4-0 against Bolton,” said the Argentinian. “We are focused on winning, that is our first goal and then we are focused on deserving to win.

“Only then will we try to make the most important difference possible. This is our idea for this game. I couldn’t make any opinion on winning convincingly or not.”

Bolton are enduring a tough time on and off the pitch. The defeat to Norwich was the 16th time Wanderers have been beaten in their last 23 outings.

Just two games have been won during the same period, which stretches back to the start of October.

Off the field, things are even bleaker with Wanderers, the subject of a protracted takeover attempt by a consortium of businessmen, due in court next month to defend a winding up petition from the Inland Revenue.

It is the sixth time in 16 months the Lancashire club has been the subject of a petition over unpaid tax and VAT.

Amid such uncertainty – and a sustained period when wages were not paid – former Bradford City manager Parkinson deserves huge credit for bringing his side to Elland Road just three points adrift of safety.

“It is very difficult to confirm in the games the differences you find in the table,” added Bielsa when asked about Bolton sitting second-bottom of the Championship.

“If we have a look at the table, we could think Birmingham couldn’t lose against Bolton (earlier this month) and yet Bolton won. You have opposite examples, too. The norm in the Championship is you won’t have any team that will beat easily another team.”

United triumphed 1-0 at the University of Bolton Stadium in the corresponding fixture on December 15, Patrick Bamford marking his return from injury with a second-half winner.

It was his only appearance in five months after suffering a fresh knee problem. However, since returning with a goal in the 3-1 defeat to Norwich on February 2, Bamford has become United’s first-choice striker.

The knee injury suffered by Kemar Roofe, another blow for Leeds since their last game, means even more onus falls on the summer signing from Middlesbrough.

“When you have been absent for such a long time you need time to develop your sports performance,” said Bielsa about Bamford’s bid to regain full fitness. “He is making constantly positive steps to reach his best level.”

With a trip to QPR awaiting Leeds on Tuesday before West Brom head to Elland Road three days later, this feels like a pivotal week for Bielsa and his men.

“It all depends on the results of the next three games,” he said when asked if a 10-day gap will help his side in the quest for nine points in the coming seven days.

“If everything goes well, we will say the break was a good one. If it goes wrong, we will say the break stopped the development of the team.”