The Championship promotion race is reaching a pivotal stage as the season moves into its final quarter, and a third-versus-fourth clash at Elland Road this evening could be one of the most significant fixtures between now and the end of the season. Leeds, who have been in the top two for almost the entire season, now find themselves behind Norwich and Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United in the chase for the two automatic promotion spots. Hot on their tail are West Brom, relegated from the Premier League last season, but still harbouring realistic hopes of an immediate direct return.
Both of these sides harbour the cold comfort of being more or less assured of at least a play-off spot, but would prefer not to take that route. In six of the last ten seasons, a side other than the third-placed, and theoretically best side outside of the automatically promoted ones, has ended up winning promotion at Wembley. A win in this game, and the boost it would bring to hopes of avoiding that relative lottery, is therefore vital for managerial veteran Marcelo Bielsa – as it is for his counterpart here Darren Moore, making solid progress in his first full season in a managerial role.
Both sides with a point to prove
The most recent fixtures brought disappointment for both the Whites and the Baggies. Faced with a mediocre Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Tuesday, Bielsa’s men had most of the possession and chances, but none of the goals. The three points edged QPR into seventeenth place, probably safe from relegation, but it’s hard to see the 1-0 result as anything but an opportunity missed for the high-flying visitors.
West Brom, for their part, also lost last by the game’s only goal time out. Saturday’s game saw them hosting fellow promotion-fanciers Sheffield United – always an awkward fixture – and Chris Wilder’s side came away with all three points thanks to Kieran Dowell’s goal on the quarter-hour. Ten points from the last five outings represents decent form, but given a relatively soft recent schedule, Moore will be aware that points picked up against the top sides will be vital for promotion. None were gained when the Blades visited, and Leeds will be a similar test.
In this light, Unibet’s odds of 6/5 on the home side to win seem like a good shout; any win will be hard-fought, but Leeds deserve to be favourites here.
Bamford a key player for the hosts
There’s no point in denying that the absence through injury of top scorer Kemar Roofe is anything but a blow for Leeds. His spell on the sidelines could ultimately add up to anything from four to eight weeks; clearly not ideal at this vital stage of the season. Without Roofe, Leeds have beaten Bolton but lost to QPR – and it is essential that highly-rated Patrick Bamford, the man leading the line in his absence, mitigates the loss of a key player. Roofe has been good for 14 goals in 26 games – Bamford’s 3 in 11 is a drop-off, but a promotion to first-choice striker may get the best from him.
Certainly, Betfair feel he is the most likely breaker of the deadlock here. Odds of 4/1 are worth taking, as we can certainly expect that the tactical mind of Bielsa will have calculated the best way to unlock the undeniable potential of a player who’s always seemed to be capable of hitting the heights, without ever quite making that final step. With the real possibility of winger Jack Clarke being back in the first team after a virus, there are certainly the players there to provide service to Bamford.
Potentially a game for the purists
If you’re looking for a goal-filled thriller, then you might be best served looking away from the banks of the Aire this evening. This game, while featuring skilled, game-changing players on both sides, is likely to be played on a knife-edge, by teams keenly aware that a mistake could decide the game just as easily as a moment of sheer, white-hot brilliance. Neither side scored in their last outing, and anxiety over dropping any more points as March begins is liable to see this match decided by one goal, or end honours even.
A common-sense bet in this light would be to wager on there being fewer goals than you might expect. 888sport have a tempting price of 19/20 on the total goals in the game being under 2.5 – and while a 2-1 win for either side is far from unthinkable, once you factor in the high stakes and nervousness that those stakes generate, the smart money would seem to be on a low-scoring occasion. It will still be an absorbing contest – and both of these sides could easily be playing Premier League football in 2019/20 – but perhaps not as high-scoring as the excellent attackers on show would suggest.
Bets of the Day:
Bamford to score first (4/1, Betfair); Fewer than 2.5 goals (19/20, 888sport); Leeds to win (6/5, Unibet)