IT has been a far from enjoyable week for both Middlesbrough and Leeds United ahead of today’s all-Yorkshire promotion showdown at the Riverside.
As Marcelo Bielsa’s side continued to lick their wounds following the home defeat to Norwich City that saw United deposed at the top of the Championship, Boro were enduring their own travails.
Being humbled in the FA Cup by League Two outfit Newport County was bad enough.
But the journey home turned Tuesday’s trip into an epic nightmare that seriously disrupted preparations for this lunchtime’s White Rose derby.
Engine failure meant the scheduled flight home from Cardiff Airport had to be cancelled, leaving the players to make the journey by road. The squad finally arrived back on Teesside at 7am.
Coming on the back of Tony Pulis’s men feeling the wrath of the supporters who had made the long trip to south Wales at full-time, Boro will surely be glad of the opportunity to put Tuesday night behind them when running out in front of what is likely to be the biggest crowd of the regular season at the Riverside.
More than 30,000 tickets have been sold and Pulis is looking forward to going head-to-head with a manager he admits to respecting hugely.
“I think Leeds have been fantastic and a breath of fresh air in the way that they play,” said the Boro chief. “And the way they go about things.
“He (Bielsa) is interesting, he is different and I find him really refreshing. He is clever in what he does and there is all sorts of stuff going on in his mind.
“He gets on with what he gets on with and I get on with what I get on with. I have always been a hard-working person who looks at things in depth and I’ve always tried to achieve the best results.
He (Bielsa) is interesting, he is different and I find him really refreshing. He is clever in what he does and there is all sorts of stuff going on in his mind.Middlesbrough boss Tony Pulis
“That has always been my remit as an individual, and I think Marcelo is the same. He works really hard to get the best out of everyone and I find him an interesting character.”
Bielsa, for his part, also respects Pulis and his team. The Argentinian regards the goalless draw against Boro in August as the toughest game he has faced since arriving in English football.
If Leeds are to bounce back from last weekend’s 3-1 defeat to Norwich then the Championship’s best defence will have to be broached, Boro having conceded just 22 times in 29 games.
The United chief said: “If I had to chose which was the hardest game we’ve played so far, with frictions, the one that presented the most difficult and physical challenges, I would say it’s the one against Middlesbrough – and I think this will be the trend of the coming game.”
Just seven points separate today’s two combatants, Boro having a game in hand on second-placed Leeds.
Asked if he would be approaching the Riverside game any differently to the first fixture between the two clubs, Bielsa replied; “Nothing has changed.
“We were not surprised by the way Middlesbrough played in the first game.
“We knew they would play this kind of game and in the duel of styles, the opponent, Middlesbrough, won. Because they didn’t play better than us, they didn’t have the ball, but they had more chances to score than us.
“They prevented us from playing and, being faithful to their method, they were able to create chances to score against us. It was one of the few games we deserved to lose, and actually it was a draw.”
Patrick Bamford is expected to start for Leeds after marking his latest return from injury with a late consolation goal against Norwich last weekend. He netted a hat-trick for the hosts in the corresponding fixture last season.
“Leeds are up there because they have been as good as anyone in the league this season,” continued Pulis. “Better than most, in fact.
“It is a big club, with fabulous support. Patrick will be coming back, as will Jack (Harrison). Two wonderful lads. And (Adam) Forshaw – they say he’s injured but it will be nice to see him.”
Pulis, whose side sit fifth in the table, has come in for criticism from Boro supporters over his playing style this season.
Asked about the style he expects Leeds to deploy, the Boro chief added: “They will play long, they will play short. But they play very similar and they mix it up.
“They have got good rotation and they certainly work hard. He gets everyone up to a certain level and they have to perform to a certain level physically to be in his team.”