By Rob Atkinson
It's back to league action for Leeds United this Saturday as Middlesbrough, the celebrated Smoggies of Teesside, visit Elland Road for a first-hand look at Ross McCormack, the one that got away. Boro maintained an ardent pursuit of Rossco throughout most of the summer but, alas, their love was unrequited and the object of their desires put pen to paper on a new United contract. McCormack could hardly have been in hotter form prior to the international break; six goals in two games having shot him to the top of the Championship Hitman Parade. Will he still be firing against his frustrated admirers from the Land That Yorkshire Rejected? A cameo appearance for Scotland and then a withdrawal from the national squad with a slight thigh strain may well have left him champing at the bit. He's fit and available for selection anyway, as are Alex Mowatt (groin), Sam Byram (thigh) and Stephen Warnock (foot). The fine performances of Danny Pugh and Michael Brown at Charlton, however, may indicate that it won't be a straightforward matter to replace them. Scott Wootton's absence means that Marius Zaliukas will get an Elland Road run-out but El-Hadji Diouf is struggling to overcome a stomach bug.
For Boro, the main change is at the top. New boss Aitor Karanka has a Real Madrid pedigree and he will be looking for a positive response to his appointment from a Boro team who have mainly flattered to deceive this term. Brian McDermott speaks warmly of him, and he will doubtless have reminded his own players that the first game under a new manager frequently produces an above-par performance from players who suddenly have a fresh face to impress. Elland Road (and Real Madrid) old boy Jonathan Woodgate will hope to return to the Boro squad after his latest injury setback, and should receive a warm welcome if he figures in the team - as ever - recovery permitting. Fellow defender Seb Hines faces a fitness test ahead of any decision on the make-up of Boro's back line.
Promisingly for Leeds, a decent crowd seems likely, estimates ranging around the 29000 - 30000 mark - not too bad for one of the more ruinously-expensive fixtures. Those who shell out for tickets should contribute to a good atmosphere as the Smoggies can normally be relied upon to bring a good following. Their support is well-known for creating more noise away from home than is usually heard in their own soul-less, Meccano-type stadium.
The international break has given rise to two schools of thought, one saying it was a good thing for Leeds, having enabled the clearing-up of some niggly injuries; others opine that it's a pity as the team were on a hot streak before the break and may now have gone back into their collective shell. The mercurial nature of United's form means that either view could equally likely be correct, but I'm going to err once again on the side of foolhardy optimism and predict not only a 2-0 win, but also a continuation of Ross McCormack's prolific form against the team that were panting to sign him not so long ago.
I'll go for one from Rossco and another from Luke Murphy as Leeds triumph to edge ever closer to that longed-for playoff berth and send a good-sized crowd home happy.