This season’s post-Covid-19 run-in is so condensed the emotions are even greater than usual. Leeds still have six Championship matches to play, but in 18 days their season will be over – or at least they hope so.
After the elation of sweeping Fulham aside seven days ago to all but knock the Cottagers out of the automatic promotion race and open up a four-point gap at the top, the Whites travel to Blackburn Rovers today with a point separating them from West Bromwich Albion, who host Hull City tomorrow.
Marcelo Bielsa’s men have been through this before, albeit a slightly less extreme version. Last season they finished last in a three-horse race for two automatic promotion places and were beaten in a dramatic play-off semi-final. It has only stiffened their resolve to complete the job this summer, according to Jamie Shackleton.
“The experiences and the pain from last year should definitely add that little bit more motivation if you need any to get over the line,” reflects the Leeds-born midfielder.
The Whites have had a mixed time since emerging from their coronavirus hibernation, let down by mistakes in defeat at Cardiff City, rampant in the second half against Fulham and dominant too at home to bottom-of-the-table Luton Town, only for poor finishing to leave them having to settle for a 1-1 draw.
“The lads have been working hard and the mood is good,” insists Shackleton. “We’d have preferred three points on Tuesday night but all the focus is on getting the three points at Blackburn.
“We are ready to put everything into this next game so that’s what it’s about now, moving on and getting the three points again.”
In a way, Shackleton believes the head-spinning fixture list makes it easier.
“I was saying yesterday to my mum that in three weeks’ time we will be done and dusted and that’s mad to think that we have still got six games to play,” says the 20-year-old. “But in a way I think it helps you to focus on the next game a bit quicker.
“If you have got a few days between games like usual then a couple of days after if you haven’t won you might be dwelling on it. There is no time for that now, it’s three days all focussed on the next team.”
For another locally-reared midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, ignorance is bliss. He is not allowing himself to get distracted by the pressure West Brom are trying to apply to the title race.
“I try not to look at their results, I just try to focus on our games, how we’re doing and not anyone else,” insists Phillips. “I think it just adds more pressure if we think teams are creeping up behind us. I’d rather not speak about it at the training ground or around the club.”
The rapid turnaround could help Shackleton’s chances of featuring at the end of a campaign where a succession of minor injuries – plus the form of his team-mates – have restricted him to four league starts. Bielsa is not a coach who rotates for rotation’s sake, naming the same XI for all three games since English football restarted last month.
But with Liam Cooper picking up a dead leg against Luton and Stuart Dallas hobbling off with a hamstring problem, that could change today. Shackleton replaced Dallas from the bench in midweek, and Pablo Hernandez has been restricted to cameos since the resumption.
“You never know what is going to happen with the schedule being as busy as it is,” says Shackleton. “Little niggles are more likely so the players on the bench have to be ready and I think all the lads are in good shape.”
If the pressure is on at the top this weekend, it is just as unrelenting at the bottom, where relegation-threatened Barnsley, Huddersfield Town and Hull City all enjoyed big midweek wins.
Bottom at the resumption, Barnsley go to Stoke City knowing a third win since it will take them above the Potters and effectively out of the relegation zone. Huddersfield host Preston North End.
Neil Warnock takes on old club Queens Park Rangers in his first Riverside game as Middlesbrough manager tomorrow, where a good first half will further up the ante for Hull’s later game at the Hawthorns. Sheffield Wednesday are at Swansea City.
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