Match Preview: Leeds United vs. Preston North End

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After their 0-0 draw at Cardiff City last Saturday, North End guaranteed that they would sit in fifth place on Christmas Day. It was a game that they arguably deserved more from, given that they controlled possession, created plenty of chances and limited Neil Harris’s Bluebirds to just one shot on target.

But it was a first clean sheet in nine for Alex Neil’s men, and they can look forward to a trip to Elland Road with added confidence given that Ben Davies should be available after missing a month of action due to injury.

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That will mean a resumption of his partnership with Patrick Bauer – before Davies’s injury, the duo had missed just 119 minutes of Championship football combined this campaign.

And North End face a Leeds side that will be short on confidence after letting a three-goal lead slip against Cardiff, before falling 2-1 to fellow promotion chasers Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

Marcelo Bielsa’s side, however, are inside the automatic promotion places by eight points in second place and have lost just once at Elland Road this season. To say this is a tough game would be an understatement.

Potential Dangers

Out of all the teams that have visited Deepdale this season – and that includes league leaders West Brom – I thought Leeds were the best of the lot. They have quality all over the pitch, not least in the midfield areas with Jack Harrison amongst those making an increasing impression on the Leeds faithful.

Manchester City loanee Harrison gave Darnell Fisher a tough test when the two sides met at Deepdale in October, and expect him to produce a repeat performance against whoever plays for North End at right-back this time.

The 23-year-old has scored a few goals of late, too. He’s notched 3 in his last 9 appearances.

Two of those were decisive strikes – he scored an 87th-minute winner for Leeds in a 1-0 away win at Reading, two weeks after scoring the second goal in their eventual 2-1 home win against Blackburn.

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He also has express pace, gets into good positions on the left flank and is a dangerous crosser of the ball.

The second potential danger for Leeds is the in-form Patrick Bamford.

The ex-Chelsea frontman has received criticism from sections of Leeds supporters, having at one point scored just one in 11 appearances. Also, with the increasing influence of on-loan Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah, who is yet to start a Championship game, it would not have been a surprise to have seen the two swap places in Leeds’s squad.

But Bielsa backed Bamford’s talents, and the 26-year-old has repaid his manager handsomely. He has scored six goals in his last eight games, putting him on 10 for the season, and looks back to top form.

Although he didn’t score against North End in October, his general link-up play was impressive and expect the battle between Bamford and PNE’s two centre backs to potentially be match-defining.

The third biggest danger for North End to keep tabs on is central defender Ben White.

The on-loan Brighton man has earned rave reviews at Elland Road this season and has started all but one of Leeds’s games in all competitions this term. He has one of the highest pass completion rates of any defender in the league and has reportedly been tracked by European and World champions, Liverpool.

White was slated to play in midfield for Leeds against Hull two weeks ago but continued at centre back due to defensive injuries.

And Bielsa’s side were boosted by the news that Seagulls boss Graham Potter would not recall White to his Premier League squad in January, meaning he will be able to see out what has been a highly impressive season at Leeds so far this season.

Opposition View

This week’s opposition view sees a familiar Leeds United fan return in the shape of Marco Hopcutt. Marco is currently in his third year at Leeds Trinity University studying sports journalism. He can also be found writing for Through it all Together, and you can follow him on twitter here – @MarcoHopcutt77.

Leeds United’s 11 game unbeaten run came to an end last weekend as they fell to defeat in London at the hands of Fulham.

The Whites still remain eight points above the play-off places in 2nd and look in a good position to secure promotion to the Premier League after last season’s disappointment. Two weeks ago, Leeds showed their first weakness in weeks when they squandered a 3-0 lead at home to Cardiff City eventually drawing 3-3.

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Bielsa said he was unable to explain the slip up at Elland road two weeks ago and was disappointed with the loss in London last weekend. Leeds were also extremely disappointed with the refereeing decision that granted Fulham their first goal from the penalty spot in the first half.

Ben White was penalized for a push in the area, a decision which if VAR was around in the Championship would have (in my opinion) 99.9% been over-turned. Despite a slight blip the last couple of weeks, Leeds are still one of the favourites to gain promotion when May rolls around and will be hoping to bounce back when they host Preston at Elland Road on Boxing Day and keep applying the pressure on league leaders West Bromwich Albion.

In terms of team news, United are without Spanish playmaker Pablo Hernandez who has been ruled out for a month with a hamstring injury. However, the returns of Tyler Roberts and Jamie Shackleton will soften the blow of Hernandez’s absence.

My predicted line-up is a 4-1-4-1 and is: Casilla; Ayling, Cooper, White, Dallas; Phillips; Costa, Klich, Roberts, Harrison; Bamford. I’ll also go for 2-0 Leeds.

Predictions

This will be a huge test for Alex Neil’s side – North End don’t have a particularly good record at Elland Road, having not won there in league competition since returning to the Championship in 2016.

Leeds are in prime position to clinch automatic promotion as things stand, and have tasted defeat just once at home this season. But as the Cardiff clash showed, Bielsa’s men are not quite invincible in front of their own fans.

And North End’s encouraging performance at Cardiff themselves last weekend should give them plenty of confidence, providing they can be more clinical with their finishing.

My prediction is – Leeds 1-1 Preston.

In terms of PNE’s starting XI, I doubt there will be too many changes from the Cardiff game.

If Ben Davies is fully fit he will slot back into the back four, whilst Tom Clarke continued his encouraging return from injury at right-back against the Bluebirds.

The only other change I can potentially see happening is out wide – given that Brad Potts has generally started games against the top teams this season, I would not be surprised to see him restored to the side.

I’ll go with; Rudd; Clarke, Bauer, Davies, Hughes; Pearson, Gallagher; Potts, Browne, Maguire; Barkhuizen.

Not listened to part 1 of From the Finney Meets… Graham Alexander yet? Here you go.