Play-off chasers Aston Villa and title contenders Leeds play out the last Championship match before Christmas and EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his selection.
Aston Villa v Leeds United | Sunday 23rd December 2018, 13:00 | Sky Sports
Aston Villa against Leeds United is one of the most exciting clashes in the Championship calender.
They are the division’s two most decorated clubs who have remained widely-supported through difficult times this century; now, they appear to be back on an upward curve.
In Dean Smith and Marcelo Bielsa respectively, both certainly have the manager to bring back attacking football and, results imply, deliver a return to the Premier League.
But who will be victorious at Villa Park?
Reasons to doubt Villa
Smith admitted that his side were “not at our scintillating best” in last week’s 2-2 draw with Stoke City.
The display highlighted that Aston Villa can miss the creativity and guile of Jack Grealish, who is a doubt for this next match with injury.
Conor Hourihane, who often drops deeper to distribute and John McGinn, an energetic presser, are both capable technicians, but neither quite offer Grealish’s ability to glide through the thirds.
At the other end, Villa look suspect defensively.
Alan Hutton, who deputizes at left-back, is reluctant to challenge for the ball on his unnatural side and thus opposing wide men have space to deliver crosses, which neither James Chester nor Axel Tuanzebe quite have the bravery to deal with.
Smith will be keen to re-balance his squad in January, but for now he must work with what he has.
Leeds have options
One of the main question marks about Leeds United’s promotion push was the lack of depth in their squad.
At one point this month, their squad possessed just 12 fit, available players with more than 15 appearances at this level to their name.
It was vital, therefore, that striker Patrick Bamford returned to contention to reduce the burden on Kemar Roofe over this festive period; Bamford came off the bench to score the winner in the 1-0 victory at Bolton last time out.
Another substitute who catalysed that triumph was winger Jack Clarke, who has developed remarkably quickly since coming through the academy.
When he featured in the 1-0 win over Reading a few weeks ago, he injected fresh energy but also drew the ire of teammates due to questionable decision-making, which was understandable for someone used to youth team football.
Since then though, Clarke has found more composure in the final third; he had the presence to tee up Pablo Hernandez’s crucial winner at Bramall Lane after stealing the ball from the goalkeeper.
It cannot be denied that Aston Villa have good options going forward.
Yannick Bolasie can cause problems with his pace, power and trickery, Tammy Abraham can at times bully centre-backs with his athleticism and quality and we saw, in the 2-2 draw at West Brom, that Ahmed El-Ghazi is capable of the spectacular.
However, Leeds should be solid if Marcelo Bielsa is able to bring in a natural centre-back, ideally Liam Cooper but more likely Aapo Halme, to partner the excellent Pontus Jansson, allowing Kalvin Philips to move further up.
When Phillips and Adam Forshaw are both in central midfield, the Whites have the defensive base to keep the opposition out.
In Bailey Peacock-Farrell, meanwhile, they have a goalkeeper who is steadily growing in confidence – something that cannot necessarily be said for his opposite number.
Orjan Nyland is a reasonable shot-stopper but has made a few high-profile errors since signing for Villa.
He’ll have to play during the festive period, despite knowing that he is likely to be replaced when expensive winter addition Lovre Kalinic is eligible to join on 1st January – hardly ideal for confidence.
The Tactics Board
Although Aston Villa have had a good start to life under Smith, they are still in a transitional phase.
The Midlanders have conceded two or more goals in four of their last five matches.
They are likely to try to play out from the back but, when Whelan is on the field, there can sometimes be an awkwardness to their build-up play from deep.
That’s not a criticism of Whelan, who is always committed to the cause, but the last two managers to recruit him – Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce – require different qualities from their midfielders to Dean Smith.
For that reason, the Villans could be vulnerable to Leeds’ aggressive, high-press led by Kemar Roofe and Mateusz Klich; the visitors will fancy their chances of creating chances in transition.
Jack Clarke, if rewarded for bright substitute appearances with a start, could cause problems for Hutton down the right channel while Pablo Hernandez can pick some perfect through balls in that final third.
The Betting Angle
For our best bet, we’ll take Betfair’s 13/5 on Leeds to win with Over 1.5 goals, an eventuality that has occurred in nine of their 22 league games.
That bet will land if the West Yorkshire outfit win by a scoreline other than 1-0; Aston Villa have lost a league game to a solitary goal on just one occasion this term.
Leeds to win and Over 1.5 goals (13/5 Betfair)