Captain Tom Lees is challenging play-off chasing Sheffield Wednesday to deliver a major Championship statement of intent at the expense of his former club Leeds United this evening.
Victory over leaders Leeds in tonight’s televised Yorkshire derby would move tenth-placed Wednesday into the top six ahead of tomorrow’s programme and reduce the gap between the White Rose rivals to just a point.
Lees says that the additional psychological value of three points is not lost upon the Owls either, especially after spending the vast majority of last season marooned in mid-table and away from the play-off positions.
Backing up last weekend’s fine win at Aston Villa with another significant triumph this evening would see the feel-good factor grow further at Hillsborough – where the Owls are unbeaten in the league this season – according to the defender.
On whether a victory this evening would make the Owls’ divisional rivals sit up and take notice, Lees said: “Definitely and it would put us in that (play-off) spot to build from.
“The way we start is usually slowly and we are always chasing. In this part of the year it would be quite nice to not give anyone too much of a headstart and say to everyone, ‘yes, we are in the mix’. Hopefully we can then stay in the position for the rest of the season.
“It is a great opportunity. When you get that consistency and two or three results together, you quickly climb the table.
“I cannot remember being around these positions this early. It is a weird feeling to say that if we win we will be in the play-offs [positions] because if you look at this season we have had some really bad losses as well, which is quite surprising.”
Lees says that he and his team-mates are under no illusions about the extent of the task they face tonight against a Leeds side who are unbeaten away from Elland Road this season and possess the best away record in the division – while also scoring more Championship goals on their travels than any other club.
Yet Leeds make the short trip south on the back of their first league defeat of the season, a surprise home reverse to Birmingham City last weekend.
In fact, Marcelo Bielsa’s side have won just once in their past four outings, but Lees believes that his old club possess the stamina and quality to last the course this season and avoid anything resembling a re-run of last year when the Whites fell off the pace badly after a strong opening of the season up until Christmas.
Lees said: “They have showed enough this season to show they have enough quality and are a good enough side to be involved at the top end of the season for most of the season. But you never know, it is a lot easier to play when you are on that roll of winning games and the momentum seems to take care of itself.
“I think everybody in the Championship will be pretty impressed with how they have started.
“The thing that has probably caught everyone’s eye is they have probably got the same players [to last year], but seem to be playing in a totally different way and a lot of them are outperforming what they have done in the past. They have set the pace at the moment, but it is a good challenge for us.
“It must be something to do with him (Bielsa) and everyone has made a fuss of him coming to the club and it seems to be quite a big thing.
“But they lost their last game and it will be interesting in how they react as they have not had to face much adversity so far.”
Neither side will be short of motivation tonight although Lees feels that this particular derby episode could prove one with a difference from a stylistic point of view – without the traditional ‘blood and thunder’ associated with derbies over the course of 90 minutes.
Lees said: “We will be full of confidence, wanting to carry on our momentum, and Leeds will be doubly hungry to bite back after losing. I am expecting the first 10 to 15 minutes to be quite frantic with a good tempo. But, in contrast to previous years, you have two teams who play a very technical game.
“It will almost be like a foreign-style game rather than a Yorkshire derby. Leeds definitely do not play how they used to and we don’t either.”
Relishing tonight’s test, he added: “The Sheffield derby is the big one for us, no question about that, but this is right behind it. Two really big clubs adds to it.
“I am sure the game will live up to expectations. They have started well and we are not doing too badly.”
Owls striker Fernando Forestieri adds to the hosts’ options this evening after serving a three-match ban for violent conduct, but fellow forward Gary Hooper has suffered another setback on his road to rehabilitation from a long-term hip injury.
He is to seek a second opinion from another doctor after he was unable to train fully with his team-mates this week.
On Forestieri, head coach Jos Luhukay, who has rubbished talk of any future move for Chelsea defender Gary Cahill, said: “He has trained very well in the last weeks. He is in good shape, so we hope he can help us in the games we have before the next international break.”