Pablo Hernandez believes once Christmas is over, we will have a good idea of which teams are in the Championship promotion shake-up. It is vital, therefore, Leeds United have a good few weeks.
The Whites play 10 games in 39 games, culminating in a New Year’s Day trip to current leaders West Bromwich Albion.
“The next month or two are very important for all the teams,” stressed 34-year-old Hernandez, who this week signed a contract extension until 2022.
“Normally it’s the period where you can start to see which teams will fight at the top of the league and who will be in mid-table. It’s very important for us to win games and try to get into a good position in the table but in this league every game is difficult so it’s good for us that we’re on the back of two wins in a row, and we have to try to continue that.
“Last year around this time you could see three teams who were going to challenge – Leeds, Norwich and Sheffield United (Middlesbrough were also in the running but dramatically dropped off). This season you can’t see one team that is better than the rest, you have five, six, seven teams at the same level and I think these teams will fight for promotion until the end of the season.”
Leeds are third after 16 games, level on points with second-placed Preston North End, and two behind West Brom.
They were top going into and coming out of the same period last season, but finished fourth, and were beaten in the play-off semi-finals.
With such an important period coming up, there has been some positive injury news.
Egzjan Alioski will return from injury at Luton Town tomorrow, and the match-fitness of Stuart Dallas, Liam Cooper and Jamie Shackleton will be assessed after recent injuries. On-loan Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah is due back in training next week, but there is no return date for Adam Forshaw.
Dallas missed Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany with a hamstring injury, but has healed quickly.
“Dallas is healthy,” said head coach Marcelo Bielsa. “Cooper is healthy as well, but we have to see, we don’t know if he’s going to play but maybe.
“With Shackleton, it’s the same situation as Cooper, healthy – but longer since he last played so we have to see how long it’s going to take him to be ready to complete.
“Dallas played five days ago and Cooper 12 days ago so they are different situations to Eddie (injured in training at the end of October). Once Eddie starts to train with the group he will work to be ready to compete (for a place). It’s one thing being healthy, another thing being match-fit.”
Cooper and Shackleton were both injured in the early-October win over West Brom. Cooper recovered in time to start the last two matches, only to suffer another groin problem. Shackleton has since developed further muscle problems.
Getting players out of the treatment room is crucial at this time of year, according to Bielsa.
“It’s an important time of the season so we will try to have at least two players in every position and try to look after the feelings of the players and make sure they get the rest they need,” he reflected. “Those two factors are easy for us to take care of but doing both at the same time is difficult.”
Meanwhile, Bielsa does not expect Tottenham Hotspur’s decision to sack his former player Mauricio Pochettino to have any bearing on Jack Clarke’s short-term future.
Spurs bought Clarke in the summer for £10m and loaned him back to the Whites, though his only first-team appearances this season have come in the League Cup, prompting speculation he could be recalled in January. That decision will now fall to Pochettino’s successor, Jose Mourinho. “I never talked with Pochettino about Jack Clarke and I didn’t talk with anybody at Tottenham about him so for me it’s the same situation,” said Bielsa. “Every day I try to do the best for Clarke, and Tottenham and Clarke will decide if what we are doing is good for him or not.”