Leeds United v Fulham - Stuart Dallas braced for a sprint finish

Stuart Dallas is not hiding from it, the first match at Elland Road for 112 days is a massive one. Concentration will be vital on a difficult day to get your head around.

Stuart Dallas on the charge. Picture Bruce Rollinson

The Championship table backs up the Northern Irishman’s assertion that Leeds United’s result against Fulham this afternoon will not decide their resumed season, but the psychological impact of victory for either team cannot be underestimated.

Fulham went into lockdown at the head of the pack chasing the top two. Seven points behind, they wanted to apply pressure from the off, but instead lost to Brentford – who beat leaders West Brom last night 1-0 to stand five points off the top two.

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Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, though, were unable to take advantage, beaten 2-0 at Cardiff City.

Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips prepares to take a corner at an empty Cardiff City Stadium..

If they can put that right by beating the Cottagers today, 10 points will feel an awfully long way back to the west Londoners with only seven matches to make it up. Likewise, at this of all times Leeds do not want anyone getting too close, and a win would cut the gap to an uncomfortable four. Losing consecutive games will test the self-belief of whichever side suffers that fate, if either does.

“Look, there’s no getting away from how big the game is,” says Dallas on a Zoom call with journalists. “It’s a massive game, a chance to extend the gap between us and them or the other way abouts. We know how big a game it is.

“(But) I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all, to be honest. No matter what happens there’s still a lot of football to be played between now and the end of the season, but it would be a huge step for us if we could win it.

“At this stage of the season no matter what game you go into it’s the biggest of the season.

“It’s just about keeping that gap now in these remaining games and it’s a chance to make the gap bigger.

“But there are still seven games after that and this Championship’s crazy, you see it every year. There’s other teams in the hunt. We’ve just got to be 100 per cent prepared for what’s ahead of us.”

Perspective is important in the pressure of a promotion race, and as one of the team’s leaders, albeit a quiet one on the field, Dallas has a job to ensure his team-mates do not get caught up in the hysteria one defeat can bring, especially when the five-match winning streak which preceded it is so far away.

Rather than be daunted by the run-in, Leeds’s players have to embrace the chance to make themselves heroes at a club which has not tasted Premier League football since 2004.

“You can’t read too much into it,” Dallas says of Sunday’s loss in south Wales. “We know the standards we’ve set ourselves and when a defeat comes it annoys us. The media and the public will always over-react. One bad result and people have a meltdown

“This is a challenge and we’ve got to embrace it. That’s part and parcel of playing for the club. There is a lot of weight on our shoulders but we have to embrace it.

“We know what we have to do. It has been a long season when you look back at the first game at Bristol City but these are the games you want to play in,” he said.

“We set out at the start of the season to get promoted and we haven’t done that at the minute so we want to finish this off as strongly as we can. We know it is a sprint finish now.”

The Whites have struck a refreshingly positive tone throughout lockdown, constantly talking about how eager they were to get back even though they would have been handed the title they crave if not. That mindset is reflected in how Dallas views today’s game which Tyler Roberts – who “could turn you in a phonebox” according to his ultra-versatile team-mate – has been declared fit for.

“I haven’t thought of it like cutting it (the gap between Fulham and Leeds) to four points,” he insists. “I don’t like to think of it that way, I like to be positive.”

There will be a strangeness about today’s behind-closed-doors experience at a ground known for its passion but hopefully the trip to Cardiff got some of the weirdness out of the players’ systems.

“It was good to get the first game out of the way,” reflects Dallas. “Our fitness levels were there and we dominated the game. Because of how we want to play, we’re going to make mistakes (which cost them the two goals) but it doesn’t define our season.

“We can talk as much as we want but we’ve got to do our talking on the pitch.

“We’ve a lot to play for. We’ve been itching to get back and play games and thankfully it has come about. We’re delighted to be back and looking forward to the rest of the season. To be totally honest there wasn’t once in (last week’s) match where I stopped and said to myself, ‘This is strange’. Of course going into the game you know there’s going to be a strange feeling but when you go onto the pitch it’s 11 v 11 and you’ve got a job to do.

“If you stop to think about the (absent) fans you’ll get punished. We’ve got to keep our concentration 100 per cent.”
Stopping and thinking has been the story of the last three months for Leeds.

Knowing how important the final games will be has clearly motivated them, but thinking too much about it can pile on pressure.

“As players we understand the job we have to do,” says Dallas. “We know where we are and where we want to be. You’ve got to keep training to stay in the best possible shape to get to where we want to be. You can’t let yourself think too far ahead, we’re not there, there’s a lot of football still to be played. We know how tough it’s going to be. It’s something we’re relishing.”

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