Leeds United v Aston Villa - Marcelo Bielsa only wants to face the best Premier League rivals have to offer

Seeing how Aston Villa have kicked on after their first season back in the Premier League ought to excite Leeds United fans. Dean Smith’s side scraped survival in 2019-20 but have firmly established themselves as top-half material this season. Right from the off, that should be newly-promoted Leeds’s target.

CROWD PLEASER: Raphinha celebrates his goal against Southampton with a tribute to Ronaldino's mother who died from Covid. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Even if Marcelo Bielsa is typically reluctant to attach too much significance to October’s 3-0 win in the West Midlands, it was a clear indication hat-trick hero Patrick Bamford and his team were the real deal as a Premier League team.

Villa will again be the obstacle as Leeds look to consolidate their top-10 position at Elland Road this evening, but a less daunting one if, as expected, Jack Grealish is injured. Leeds coach Bielsa, the great footballing romantic, hopes he is not.

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Like Whites winger Raphinha, Grealish is the sort of player to remind you why you love football so much, the type who can lift a well-organised, well-coached side to another level. “I wish all the players were like this,” says Bielsa.

Second seasons are never easy, as Sheffield United are discovering after their barnstorming last term. Huddersfield Town, Bradford City, Middlesbrough and Hull City (twice) have all found out the hard way consolidating your place in the Premier League in the first 12 months is a long way removed from establishing yourselves amongst the heavyweights.

The task is a lot easier with unique talents like Grealish but Villa had him last season, too, and it was only just enough. Since then, Bielsa has been impressed at how they have learnt from their narrow escape and improved.

“Aston Villa observed the changes they needed to make, found solutions to the positions they thought they needed to improve and managed to keep the players who showed they had the level to play at this competition,” noted the studious Argentinian.

“They have some young players who compliment the squad and make it efficient.

Doubtful: Aston Villa's Jack Grealish. Picture: PA

“This is their second season in the Premier League and they’ve made corrections. Corrections come from mistakes that have been made. It’s impossible to come from the Championship to the Premier League and not make errors because the levels are totally different.

“The players they have in each position have similar characteristics to those we have.”

Leeds can comfort themselves that despite his reluctance to commit pen to paper just yet over a new contract, it will almost certainly be Bielsa and his shrewd sporting director Victor Orta drawing conclusions from a season which already has packed in plenty of highs and lows.

As well as accumulating young players who should bear fruit in years to come, last summer Orta was also able to buy the type of player newly-promoted sides find extremely hard to afford and attract. Having grown their own, Villa were extremely fortunate they did not need to, but Leeds pulled a £17m rabbit from the hat when Orta signed Raphinha from Rennes in September.

Marcelo Bielsis limited in his midfield options. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The Brazilian’s performance against Southampton on Tuesday was another reminder of his extraordinary talent.

Raphinha and Grealish are footballers Bielsa adores.

“Spectators fall in love with the game when they see these types of players,” he says.

Grealish picked up a shin injury last week that caused him to miss the game against Leicester City. The Foxes’ 2-1 win only strengthened the slightly unfair suspicion in some quarters that Villa’s is a one-man team. It was no surprise Smith has been playing his cards close to his chest amidst reports Grealish could be out for a month with what his manager downplayed as “mild discomfort.”

FITNESS TEST: Centre-half Diego Llorente, left, may start his second game in five days at Elland Road today. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Without that knowledge, Leeds need two plans – one if Grealish plays and a very different one if he does not.

Bielsa, who faced him in the Championship, hopes he does. Like his team, the coach has a refreshing air of innocence about him.

“He is a great player, a player who can unbalance,” he says, reaching for his favourite buzzword. “I always prefer the opponents to have their best players because even if that fortifies a team and makes them more difficult to face it’s a stimulus for us to face such players who are playing so well, to neutralise them, looking to impose yourself on an opponent with their best players and not one that’s debilitated.

“They have the players to cover any absences.”

Because neither Leeds nor Villa are part of English football’s elite with the squad depth to match, they are subject to the inconsistencies the rest suffer. It is why Bielsa is loathe to single out October’s win as a coming-of-age night for his Premier League novices, who beat a team looking to go top of the table that night.

“In that game, we were a very good version of ourselves and in the games since they’ve had ups and downs and so have we,” he argues.

Exciting: Leeds United's Raphinha. Picture: PA

“Challenges in this league, we have one every single week. There are great performances followed by some unsatisfactory performances for (almost) every team. There are teams who go on a series of positive results or teams where the opposite happens. The same thing happens back and forth between the teams.

“A great performance like that has repercussions on the mood of the team but I also feel it is a competition that is so long and unstable it makes it hard for me to believe the effects of one game lasts for a long time.”

Tonight will not go down as a heavyweight clash but the signs this season have been good that two clubs with formidable histories are building back towards where they think they should be, with next-level talents like Raphinha and Grealish leading the way.

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