West Bromwich Albion v Leeds United - It’s more than a two-horse race, says Stuart Dallas
Leeds, who start the new year in pole position in the division for the second successive campaign, visit the side just below them in second-placed West Bromwich Albion this evening in front of the Sky cameras (5.15pm) in a mouth-watering top-of-the-table encounter to start 2020 and the new decade.
On Sunday, the pair swapped places on a dramatic final day of Championship action in 2019, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side registering a staggering 5-4 victory at Birmingham City, while previous leaders Albion surprisingly lost 2-0 to Middlesbrough – just five miles away at The Hawthorns.
As it stands, Leeds and Albion, separated on goal difference only, hold a comprehensive nine-point buffer over the chasing pack, with Fulham occupying third place.
It has prompted some pundits to suggest that the race for automatic promotion is a two-way one, but Dallas has wisely given short shrift to such a notion.
At the start of 2019, Leeds occupied top spot, but ended up in third place at the end of the season, with a sign of things to come arriving in a 4-2 loss at Nottingham Forest last New Year’s Day.
The perspective of events in the second half of last term is ensuring that Leeds are steadfastly staying on message and not looking too far ahead, despite their healthy cushion above third place.
On this evening’s summit meeting between the sides occupying first and second spot, Dallas said: “The table says that, but I think when you really look into the data, there are other teams that are up there as well.
“You have Fulham and Brentford. You have a lot of teams in and around that top eight or top 10 that can go on a run.
“In this league, we have seen that anybody can beat anybody.
“Certainly, we are in a good place at the minute, but we are not getting carried away from the work that we have to do.”
Keeping in that mindset, Dallas insists that there is no extra psychological value in Leeds being at the top of the division for the second consecutive year on January 1, with being in the top two after 46 games being the only thing that matters.
That was borne out last season when Sheffield United, in fourth place at the start of 2019, ended up being promoted automatically, while Leeds were ultimately destined for play-off heartache.
The Northern Irishman, one of United’s unsung heroes this season, commented: “To be top at the end of the year is obviously great, but nothing is done here.
“We are in a great position, there is no denying that.
“But we have got to concentrate on ourselves, keep working hard, keep preparing well for games and trying to do what we do in training on match-day.”
The contrast between the moods of both sides ahead of this evening could not be more contrasting, with Leeds heading into the game after coming out on the right side of a nine-goal thriller in euphoric fashion at St Andrew’s.
Across the second city, West Bromwich saw their eye-catching 14-game unbeaten sequence – their longest without a defeat in well over a century since the 1901-02 season – bite the dust against Boro, who registered their first away league triumph of the campaign in the process.
It was a first setback for Slaven Bilic’s side since they lost 1-0 against Leeds at Elland Road on October 1.
It also saw Albion suffer a first home defeat since February 23, a 1-0 reverse to Sheffield United and their relinquishing of pole position has raised the stakes ahead of tonight’s meeting.
Another subplot arrives in the form of Leeds’ heavy 4-1 loss in the Black Country in front of the TV cameras last season, with both sides having scores to settle in their first outing of the New Year.
Conversely, given their buffer at the top of the table, some might venture that a draw would probably not be the worst result for either side, but Dallas says that United’s only thoughts are on securing the second part of an away double in the West Midlands after their thrilling stoppage-time win at Pep Clotet’s Birmingham.
Dallas said: “It all points to being a good game, but if we have to go and try and grind out a result, we will.
“We want to go there and win the game, of course. We are not going there to draw or sit back, we are going there to win the game.
“We were the only side to beat them (West Brom) until Sunday and they are a great side.
“They have got quality players all over the pitch, a great manager and they will be looking to bounce back.”
Last six games: West Brom WDWDDL; Leeds WWDLDW.
Referee: R Jones (Merseyside).
Last time: West Brom 4 Leeds 1, November 10, 2018; Championship.