ALMOST a year to the day since Leeds United’s last visit to Hillsborough, Ezgjan Alioski and his team-mates will board the coach for their latest short autumnal trip to Sheffield Wednesday on the back of another black September defeat.
But for the Whites winger that is where the similarity ends with any talk of tonight’s stop-off at S6 being part of an extended bleak Championship journey akin to last season’s direction of travel being emphatically discounted.
Last year Leeds – after similarly starting the season in the fast lane and topping the table – encountered some nasty hazards in the run-up to the second international break of 2017-18.
A comprehensive loss at Cardiff City was followed by a second sobering defeat at tonight’s hosts Wednesday and Leeds – in truth – were never quite the same again.
This time around Alioski insists that the Leeds class of 2018-19 are stronger, fitter and better prepared for the challenges ahead and perhaps wiser for last year’s experiences too.
The Macedonian international, substituted after just over an hour in last season’s 3-0 defeat at Hillsborough, observed, with a hint of steel: “I see a real difference.
“Last year when we won games we won maybe 1-0 or 2-1 and we were a little lucky. This year we win 2-0, 4-1, 3-0 and you think, ‘That really was a good performance’.
“This year I am sure it cannot happen that we will lose two, three, four games in a row. I am 100 per cent sure it will never happen. This coach has prepared us to show a reaction and when we do not play very well we get a good reaction in the next game.
“At Swansea we had some players who did not give a good performance. The next game at Norwich was unbelievable. Each player is focused to react. That is why I am sure.
“The coach gives us the mentality to think strong. The mentality before was not like what we have now, it is changed with all players.”
It speaks volumes about Marcelo Bielsa’s fastidious attention that several of his side’s accomplished victories already this season have arrived with the caveat that imperfections remain.
Clearly a perfectionist, Bielsa seems to treat any tactical inadequacies displayed by his team as a personal affront and – like every managerial grandee – is kept awake at nights by defeats.
He had much to pour over, for perhaps the first time this season, after Saturday’s home loss to Birmingham and his players have quickly learned to appreciate that losing is something that rankles with him on a number of levels.
Alioski said: “It is better not to lose when you have Marcelo as a coach. He hates this. You see him and how he is.
“In football sometimes you do lose games, but it is great to have a coach who hates to lose.
“Sometimes a coach only shows you the good things. Marcelo shows you the bad things, so you know and do not do them next time.
“But still he believes in us and he speaks with us. He told us what was not good, what we must do better. How he shows this and how he says it to us, it is different. We know now that next time we lose we will get a hard week...
“The pressing we wanted to do and aggression we normally have in a game was not there from the beginning against Birmingham.
“They scored two goals and in the first half we did not have it (answers). But we know which mistakes we made and we are prepared for the next time.”
Alioski’s belief that Leeds’s mentality will be stronger over the course of the nine-month Championship marathon under Bielsa is fortified by his own sense of well-being.
Fitter in body as well as mind, the 26-year-old and his creative colleagues may have been afforded praise for their technical merit – prior to last Saturday at least – but they look noticeably more athletic and hard-running too.
Ahead of intense derbies at Wednesday and Hull City on Tuesday, when endurance levels are likely to be tested prior to next weekend’s home game with an impressive-looking Brentford side, it is just as well.
Alioski said: “I am fitter now. I have lost kilos and fat that I did not have so much of. At the first you think it is not so important, but then you see after how much we run, what we do on the pitch, and how fit we are. All of the players see a difference, not just me.”
Specifically on the importance of Leeds posting an immediate response tonight, he added: “It is a derby, yes, but we go there for a victory.
“It is not easy for us because teams think we are a big team now and it is not only (important) because it is a derby.
“We want to show a good performance there. Not like Saturday.”
Last six games: Sheffield Wednesday WLWDLW Leeds United WLDDWL.
Referee: R Jones (Merseyside).
Last time: Sheffield Wednesday 3 Leeds United 0; October 1, 2017; Championship.