THE Champagne football was flowing and anything seemed possible on the last feted occasion that Leeds United faced Derby County on a balmy early evening back in August.
Exactly five months on from that radiant 4-1 victory at Pride Park that resonated across the Championship, Leeds will be mindful that another special moment in their season could well transpire should they prevail in the return fixture this evening.
Now, as was the case back then in mid-August, United find themselves residing in the automatic promotion positions.
But the warmth that those ecstatic travelling Leeds supporters felt on their backs as they justifiably basked in the glow of those captivating events in the East Midlands in the summer has turned to a bit of a chill of late.
Leeds could be without five players who started on that heady occasion in Derbyshire as they head into tonight’s appointment at Elland Road.
Gaetano Berardi and Barry Douglas definitely miss out with injury, with midfield playmaker Pablo Hernandez also a big doubt.
They play with a style and if we can win against them, taking into account the style they are using, it will be a very positive thing for us.Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa
Kalvin Phillips is suspended, while Samu Saiz has moved on to Getafe on loan, with Patrick Bamford, Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman also missing from the match-day squad that travelled to Derby.
The numbers also stack up against Leeds in terms of their current form.
They head into the game on the back of a three-match losing sequence, with the January blues having even caught up with head coach Marcelo Biels, who was struggling with a heavy cold in his pre-match press conference ahead of this evening’s key fixture.
Bielsa may be cited as a visionary in terms of his coaching ethos, but he is clearly also a trooper.
His determination and avowed confidence that he can “find solutions” within his squad to overcome some New Year disruption was reinforced on several occasions in his press briefing – even if he was quick to accept that Derby are a side transformed from the one who Leeds met on the second weekend of the season.
That occasion saw Fikayo Tomori, Martyn Waghorn and Florian Jozefzoon make their Rams debuts, while another two players in Harry Wilson and Mason Mount were stepping out in front of home supporters for the first time – as was manager Frank Lampard.
The ex-Chelsea and England midfielder was the first to admit that his side were taught a harsh footballing lesson by a mesmerising Leeds side – and motivation will not be in short supply tonight.
Neither will it be for Leeds, conscious of the importance of making another statement amid some adversity against Derby again just as they did during similarly testing times against Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers.
Should Leeds do that then Bielsa is likely to derive greater satisfaction than he did back in Derby.
Bielsa said: “Derby is not the same team any more, they are a lot better now as a team.
“We cannot rely on the fact that we played against them five months ago (and won 4-1). I do not think they will be similar games because both teams are very different now.
“They play with a style and if we can win against them, taking into account the style they are using, it will be a very positive thing for us.
“I do not think it is going to be the same game. (But) we have the conditions to try and win against this opponent.
“The problems that the team has are not an excuse not to win the game.”
An antidote to the problem of set-piece concessions – which was exposed in punishing fashion in United’s 4-2 defeat at Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day – could well arrive this evening with centre-half and captain Liam Cooper back in the mix after almost a month and a half out with a knee ligament issue.
Bielsa acknowledges that Cooper’s aerial presence and organisation has been missed and his return is likely to be timely on that count.
Bielsa said: “Yes, Cooper is an addition to it. When (Luke) Ayling, (Pontus) Jansson, Cooper, Berardi and Phillips play we have five very good headers of the ball.
“When you do not have them it affects the team.”
Mateusz Klich, Kemar Roofe and Jansson, not involved in Sunday’s FA Cup exit at QPR, will also be available this evening having been afforded a much-needed break in their schedule, according to the United head coach.
“Klich needed to rest. He played lots of games in total with us and with his national team”, Bielsa observed.
“Jansson had a small problem that he is over now and Roofe also had a small problem, which he is also over. It was good for him to get some rest.”
Last six games: Leeds United WWWLLL Derby County DDLWDD.
Referee: A Davies (Hampshire).
Last time: Leeds United 1 Derby County 2; October 31, 2017, Championship.