Leeds supporters fear the worst ahead of their trip to Liverpool, as Whites “sensation” Raphinha auditions ahead of a potential move to Anfield.
The Reds beat Norwich 3-1 in the Premier League on Saturday, which coupled with Man City’s defeat to Tottenham, left the title race well and truly alive.
Next up is their game in hand at home to Leeds on Wednesday evening, with victory taking them to within three points of City.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side head to Anfield under pressure and in the relegation battle, not helped by Sunday’s 4-2 defeat at home to Man United.
Ahead of the game, we spoke to Leeds writer Freddie Smith (@fbsmith3) to hear all about Bielsa’s future, Raphinha’s brilliance and much more.
How do you assess Leeds’ season so far?
It’s definitely been a struggle so far this campaign.
Most Leeds fans were hoping and expecting to see a season of consolidation after the success of last season, but the team have found points and wins hard to come by.
A combination of injuries to key men and players not hitting the heights of last year has resulted in the team languishing in the 15th position in the league.
It’s fair to say that there’s growing uncertainty among the supporters as to whether the club can secure its Premier League status for next season.
Would you continue with Bielsa as manager? If not, who should come in?
There’s no doubting that Bielsa’s methods haven’t been as effective as the previous three seasons. He can be very stubborn and continues to attack and press man-for-man no matter the opposition or personnel at his disposal.
As mentioned, the team have been hit hard by injuries to key men this term with key players Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford missing for the majority of the season.
The support for Bielsa and his team is still unwavering on the whole, however, and most want to see him stay for as long as possible.
If Leeds can survive relegation, and Bielsa is willing to stay for another year, the club must recruit in a number of key areas in the summer transfer window to avoid a repeat of this campaign.
How could you see Raphinha potentially fitting in at Liverpool?
Raphinha has been a sensation since signing for the club from Rennes in October 2020.
He has single-handedly won games for the team with his trickery, running power and touches of quality in and around the final third.
Raphinha has also established himself somewhat as a set-piece specialist, chipping in with a handful of goals and assists from dead-ball situations.
He reminds me a lot of Mo Salah. Like him, not only is Raphinha his club’s top goalscorer this season, but his work ethic and desire to be the best possible version of himself is there for all to see.
They play in similar positions and often leave their full-back not knowing what’s just happened.
He definitely has the potential to play a starring role for Jurgen Klopp’s side should he make the move to Anfield in the future.
Who have been Leeds’ three best players this season?
With so many players having missed a large chunk of the season so far, the only players to have played consistently well would be Illan Meslier, Rafinha and Adam Forshaw.
Meslier has once again been brilliant in between the posts so far this season. Although he doesn’t have as many clean sheets to his name compared to last year, he’s kept us in games with some superb reflex saves.
As discussed, Raphinha has been the standout performer in the side since signing 14 months ago.
Without his goals, the team would be in the relegation zone and he continues to be the go-to man when the team is looking for inspiration.
I’ve picked out Forshaw for a special mention after an excellent return to first-team football.
He didn’t play for two years due to a complex hip problem and made his long-awaited comeback against Leicester at the start of November.
Forshaw has helped to fill the void left by Phillips and has been superb in every match he has featured in.
Which individuals have struggled?
A number of players have understandably had a drop-off in form this season due to the constant injury problems the team have faced.
I think it’s difficult to pick out particular players for criticism, but if I was pushed to name a few individuals it would be Junior Firpo and Mateusz Klich.
Firpo was brought in from Barcelona in the summer as a replacement for Ezgjan Alioski at left-back, but a combination of testing positive for Covid and a number of minor injuries has meant he hasn’t quite shown what he is capable of.
Klich, who was one of the first names on the teamsheet in Bielsa’s first two seasons, also contracted Covid at the start of the season and has found himself down the pecking order in Bielsa’s midfield.
Turning our attention to Liverpool, how are you assessing their title chances?
I’ve been very impressed by Liverpool this season.
The return of Virgil van Dijk has been pivotal, not only in terms of supplying defensive solidity but for allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to cause havoc going forward.
Thiago is now showing the league what a magnificent player he is and the quartet of Roberto Firmino, Diogo Jota, Sadio Mane and Salah have got to be one of the most feared attacking lineups in world football.
If it wasn’t for the relentless form of Man City, they would be in the driving seat to bring the Premier League trophy back to Anfield.
The Reds are still in touching distance and an interesting end to the season awaits. The return fixture at the Etihad in April promises to be a cracker.
Apart from Salah, which Reds player would you like to see at Leeds?
Realistically, thinking about the position Leeds need to strengthen most in the summer transfer window, I’d love to see Curtis Jones or Tyler Morton come in and bolster our midfield.
Both are technically excellent and would provide superb running power and dynamism in a Bielsa side.
If I was to have the pick of the Liverpool squad, I’d go with Firmino.
His clever link-up play and movement is exactly what we’ve been crying out for after the injury sustained to Bamford.
That’s not one that will happen anytime soon, though.
Where do you see the key battles taking place?
Leeds must stop Liverpool from dominating the wide areas if they’re to have any chance of a result.
Firpo and Jack Harrison will have their hands full containing Alexander-Arnold and Mane, and the same goes for Luke Ayling and Raphinha on the opposite flank with Robertson and Salah.
Bielsa will also need to find a way to prevent Liverpool’s midfield three from dominating the middle of the pitch.
With Phillips out of action, Leeds will need to stay compact and keep the game tight from the first whistle – a tough ask against quality opposition.
Finally, what’s your prediction?
I can’t see anything other than a comfortable home win.
Liverpool are flying and playing with so much confidence, which is the complete opposite to Leeds at this moment in time.
With key first-team players still out of contention, the visitors need to sit in and try and make it as difficult as possible for the Reds to break them down.
As we’ve seen over the course of the last few years, however, Bielsa will most probably stick to his methods, ensuring his players continue to mark man for man all over the pitch.
This will inevitably lead to one of two outcomes: a highly probable four or five-goal victory for Liverpool or a shock result for Leeds.