IF confirmation was needed as to the gladiatorial nature of tonight’s combat between the Championship’s top two clubs then it came in midweek.
Russell Crowe, star of the Oscar-winning Gladiator and lifelong Leeds United fan, asked his 2.7m Twitter followers for the best bar in New York to watch the Elland Road clash with Norwich City.
He was quickly inundated with suggestions, including a cheeky missive from Norwich City’s official account to consider seeking out fellow Hollywood A-lister – and Canaries supporter – Hugh Jackman.
The prospect of Maximus Decimus Meridius, Crowe’s lead character in Gladiator, joining Wolverine from the X-Men film series for a few beers in downtown Manhattan to watch Leeds tackle Norwich was surely enough to send Sky Sports’ PR team into a meltdown of anticipation as to what fun could be had in bigging up this top-of-the-table encounter.
For once, however, the satellite station’s hyperbole has not been required. This is a big enough game in its own right, a point underlined by all tickets being sold within 90 minutes of going on sale last month.
Full houses at Elland Road are nothing new. Such was the demand for the recent festive double header at home to Blackburn Rovers and Hull City, for instance, that all tickets had been snapped up with the city’s advent calendars still having eight doors left to open.
But even seasoned LS11 watchers were stunned as to just how quickly the Norwich tickets flew out the door.
For those involved in the top-of-the-table showdown the prospect of 35,000 supporters – the visitors have also shifted their entire allocation – roaring the two teams on under floodlights is an exciting one.
And head coach Marcelo Bielsa, for one, cannot wait for kick-off. “The offensive aspects of both teams make this attractive,” said the United chief. “Norwich is a team that attacks very well. It is a team designed to attack.
“It does not mean they do not defend well, but the profile of the team is a creative profile. We want to attack, but we know we will have to defend a lot, too.”
It is a player who is hard to neutralise. He uses a lot his intuition. He is always in good positions to receive the ball and he makes many movements.Marcelo Bielsa
Leeds and Norwich may have shared 13 seasons together in the top flight and be embroiled in their third serious promotion tussle inside the last decade, but seldom have the words ‘fierce rivalry’ seemed appropriate when previewing a meeting between the two clubs.
This evening, however, there will most definitely be an edge to proceedings.
Bielsa and the Leeds hierarchy may be keen to move on from the ‘Spygate’ saga that rapidly engulfed the club during the build-up to Derby County’s visit.
But, in the eyes of supporters, Norwich’s lead role in the subsequent letter to the Football League demanding a full inquiry makes them fair game.
For a mercifully short time, the hashtag #welcomenorwich was spawned on social media amid suggestions that life should be made as uncomfortable as possible for Daniel Farke, his players and the visiting supporters.
Mention was even made of last season’s attack on the Manchester City team bus outside Anfield.
A backlash soon followed with United fans of a more rational disposition suggesting scarves be brought along to provide a sea of blue, gold and white to welcome the two teams on to the field. It is an idea that has caught on, no doubt helped by the Baltic weather currently making the West Riding shiver.
Nevertheless, Norwich are likely to discover the true meaning of ‘hostile’ later today.
Silencing one of football’s more partisan crowds will be the target and the Canaries have a man capable of doing just that in Teemu Pukki.
“His skills are not common in English football,” said Bielsa about the 17-goal striker. “He is not a player who goes for 50-50 balls or uses his physical capabilities. He is another kind of player.
“It is a player who is hard to neutralise. He uses a lot his intuition. He is always in good positions to receive the ball and he makes many movements. He plays very simple, but is very efficient.”
Nothing, of course, will be decided in the promotion race today. Season-defining matches do not really exist in a competition as unpredictable as the Championship, where victory over a major promotion rival can easily be followed by back-to-back defeats against the bottom two clubs.
Nevertheless, this is a big, big game. A Leeds victory would mean a six-point cushion over the Canaries, who are desperate to underline the promotion credentials that have grown impressively since losing 3-0 to Bielsa’s side on the final Saturday of August.
Just two of the subsequent 24 games have been lost by Farke’s men. Drama and goals, particularly of the late variety, have also become a major feature of Norwich’s push for a Premier League return.
“They (Norwich) are an opponent we have to respect,” added Bielsa, who missed out on Daniel James in the final minutes of the January window after talks on a loan deal from Swansea City broke down.
“But all the teams have had ups and downs. Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Derby, Sheffield United, West Brom – it would be a mistake to think any of these teams are not important.
“We can’t ignore their potential and I only quoted the teams who came to mind. Football usually makes sure that things which seem evident to everyone don’t happen.”
With both managers having clearly adopted a ‘fortune favours the brave’ mentality this season the stage seems set for a battle royale between the Championship’s top two.
No quarter will be asked or given in what is likely to be a fight to the very end between two combatants desperate to land a killer blow on the other. Gladiator and Wolverine would surely approve.