By Rob Atkinson
Leeds United head off to Bolton Wanderers' Reebok Stadium on Saturday, bloodied but unbowed by defeat in their previous outing at home to Queens Park Rangers, before the international break. QPR are already - ridiculously at this stage of the season - being referred to as "Champions Elect", yet they certainly merit the title of favourites, if only for the money they have invested in what is a formidable squad. So a 1-0 home defeat was no disgrace and indeed Leeds could well have had a point, missing out somewhat unluckily late on when Rudy Austin's powerful shot clipped the angle of post and bar.
Coincidentally, much the same assessment could be given for Bolton's own home game with QPR. They too lost narrowly 1-0 and they too were denied by the woodwork of what could have been a share of the spoils. Despite the similarity of both teams' fate at the hands of Rangers though, there is a contrast in how the rest of the season has treated Bolton and Leeds. United have made a steady start, with just that one defeat and sit comfortably mid-table. Bolton on the other hand are yet to record a victory and prop up the table with a scant two points.
Several factors should prevent Leeds from feeling any complacency as they head into this fixture. Firstly, Bolton are surely better than their rock-bottom league placing suggests; in Dougie Freedman they have a manager who expects better and is likely to get it sooner rather than later. Secondly, there is the spectre of former Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford looming over the match. Beckford has made a slow start at Bolton, failing to score in the league. This, too, is a statistic that can't last much longer - and against whom is he likely to feel more motivated than his former club, where he remains a folk hero for his notable achievements in 2010? Lastly, Leeds themselves have hardly looked convincing at times this season, even during an unbeaten first few matches. Their victory at Ipswich on the last away outing was welcome, but the manner of it raised some concerns - Ipswich had so much of the first half in particular that Leeds were rather lucky not to have been buried by the interval. The level of performance will need to be raised a few notches before more such favourable results can be expected; Leeds cannot always expect to emerge victorious from a situation resembling the Alamo.
The Leeds team news will be eagerly awaited. It seems less than likely that Sam Byram will be ready for this one, he will more probably be involved in another development squad match after the weekend, at Birmingham City. The possible involvement of el-Hadji Diouf, outed recently as the man with the second-most expensive collection of cars among footballing motor enthusiasts, will be all revved up and ready to go through the gears against one of his former clubs, where he received a warm welcome in Leeds colours last season. Another ex-Trotter in Stephen Warnock should retain his place in an unchanged back four which has looked slightly more solid overall since the addition of ex Man U youngster Scott Wootton.
Bolton will hope to welcome Chris Eagles back to the starting line-up, after his substitute appearance in the disappointing 1-4 reverse at Blackburn. Defenders Zat Knight and David Wheater have had some stick from Wanderers fans lately, but both are likely to keep their back four places.
It's a tricky place to go for most teams, even when Bolton aren't quite at their best, and yet Leeds United have done very nicely, thank you, at the Reebok over the years. Past history has little bearing on current results, but feeling confident about a particular ground can count for something. If Leeds can remain solid at the back, the possible addition into the mix of Diouf - who looked lively and creative as a sub against QPR - might give them the creative edge to offer more of a threat up front. On balance, United will be hoping to merit a narrow victory, with a 2-1 away win being offered by Sky Bet at a good value 9-1.
In a week where Brian McDermott has moved swiftly - despite interest from his beloved Republic of Ireland - to confirm his 100% commitment to the United cause, the boost this news has provided should really enable his charges to overcome the threat of the Wanderers to obtain at least a point and hopefully