WITH pole position in the Championship once again up for grabs tonight, Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa admits every fixture now carries “very heavy consequences”.
The Elland Road club can wrestle back top spot from Norwich City – and leapfrog second-placed Sheffield United in the process – by triumphing at Queens Park Rangers in what is their game in hand on the rest of the top four.
If Bielsa’s men can avenge last month’s FA Cup defeat at Loftus Road it will mean the leadership of the second tier changing hands for a remarkable 21st time this season.
It indicates just how competitive the race towards the Premier League has become and why even the slightest of slips during the run-in could have big repercussions for not only Leeds, the Blades and Norwich, but also fourth-placed West Bromwich Albion.
“I think that from now on all the games will be very important,” said Bielsa, whose side would move into second place with a draw in west London.
“They will have very heavy consequences – including the one on Tuesday night.”
Leeds are attempting to move into top spot for a ninth time this season. Norwich, meanwhile, are enjoying their sixth different stint at the summit, while the Blades and Middlesbrough have had two spells apiece leading the way.
This constant jockeying for pole position is in danger of turning the Championship promotion race into a giant game of pass the parcel, albeit with the stakes incredibly high due to promotion being worth £100m alone in TV money next season.
The tone for this constant chopping and changing was set in the first week of the season with Derby County, Brentford and Boro all having a spell at the top.
Leeds then spent 39 days looking down on the rest before the madness returned in October as no fewer than four clubs – including Leeds and the Blades twice – had a spell at the top.
The longest stint also belongs to United, who had 41 days out in front between Kemar Roofe’s dramatic late winner at Aston Villa on December 23 and Norwich’s 3-1 victory at Elland Road earlier this month.
This is a big week for a club who have been out of the top flight for 15 years as tonight’s trip to the capital is followed by a Friday night showdown with West Brom under the Elland Road lights.
Leeds could, in theory, be four points clear by the time Norwich are next in action on Saturday against Millwall at The Den.
Sheffield United have to wait even longer, until Monday and the eagerly-anticipated Steel City derby at Hillsborough.
Asked yesterday for his thoughts on the challenge posed by the two clubs currently occupying the automatic promotion slots, Bielsa replied: “What they developed so far, the way they have played so far and what they have shown so far, makes them deserve the place they are occupying now in the Championship.”
United’s defeat to QPR in the Cup came on an afternoon when Bielsa made six changes following the New Year’s Day defeat at Nottingham Forest.
With the Argentinian due to send out the same XI that beat Bolton Wanderers last Saturday, just four of the youthful-looking team that lost at Loftus Road last month will be in the line-up.
That victory over Leeds is just one of two Rangers have managed since Boxing Day, the other also coming in the Cup, at home to League One Portsmouth.
The London club have lost their last seven games in the league and asked if he is expecting a backlash from the R’s, Bielsa replied: “In your question we have both possibilities.
“They can have a positive reaction or they can stay in the same negative cycle.
“We will try to influence the events as to get the best things for us and we have to analyse each game of the opponent to find out that there is a very small difference between a win and loss.”
Pressed on what qualities QPR possess under former Boro and England boss Steve McClaren, the Leeds chief added: “It is a very clear style.
“It is a team that knows how to play with their style and they know how to use and impose their skills.
“Definitely it is not going to be an easy game because it is a very experienced team and it will be a very demanding game.”
Bielsa, meanwhile, believes any talk about his own future can wait until the promotion race has been decided.
The 63-year-old, eight months into a contract that is believed to be for two years, said: “Head coaches stay or leave depending on when we draw the conclusion at the end of the season to see if we fulfilled the goals or not and we will take a decision from there.”
Last six games: Queens Park Rangers WLLLLL Leeds United LWLDWW.
Referee: A Davies (Hampshire).
Last time: Queens Park Rangers 2 Leeds United 1; January 6, 2019; FA Cup.