These are worrying times for fans of both Leeds and Burnley and the first match of 2022 is taking on plenty of importance.
Leeds sit 16th, five points ahead of their visitors, who have two games in hand. A win here would give them plenty of breathing space but a Burnley victory would really turn the heat up on Marcelo Bielsa’s men.
Unsurprisingly in the current climate, both teams head into the contest struggling for numbers, although at least things appear to be easing on that front.
Trio return – but key men still out
Leeds, whose squad situation saw both of their Christmas fixtures postponed, will have Dan James, Diego Llorente and Junior Firpo available again.
However, several players remain out, notably star midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who is expected to be out until March. Stalwart centre-back Liam Cooper is also missing, along with Charlie Cresswell and Jamie Shackleton.
Patrick Bamford (pictured) could feature but remains a doubt due to a hamstring problem, while fellow striker Rodrigo also has a question mark hanging over his fitness.
You also wonder how the enforced two-week break has affected Leeds.
Having conceded 11 in a week against Manchester City and Arsenal, it can easily be argued they needed some time off – they were woeful defensively in both of those matches.
But having had COVID in the camp, will any physical issues be on show here in what promises to be a really hard-fought game?
Clarets have solid base
Burnley have been in a similar boat having had three consecutive games postponed due to COVID among their opponents but boss Sean Dyche said he was pleased with his side’s physicality during Thursday’s 3-1 loss at Manchester United, a game which was their first for two and a half weeks. It was just their second defeat in their last seven games.
Dyche wasn’t pleased with the defending at Old Trafford, speaking of “soft goals” and again mentioning how the “details” matter so much at this level, but their current run has largely seen them tighten up defensively.
They also have plenty of injury and illness problems to deal with but one staple of late has been a regularly-available back four and one suspects they will look to stifle Leeds here and try to turn this into a grind.
Josh Brownhill is a COVID victim but keeper Nick Pope and Jay Rodriguez may be OK for this one having been laid low by the virus.
In addition, the livewire Maxwel Cornet may recover from his thigh injury in time. That would be a boon for a side who have scored just once in their last four games.
Draw the best value
The Clarets, 3.9 to win the game, have only beaten Brentford this season but despite sitting 18th, they’ve avoided defeat more often than not (nine times out of 16) and so 1.910/11 via the double-chance market about them doing so again here against a team devoid of confidence is tempting.
I’m certainly not keen on Leeds at 2.0811/10 but perhaps the best bet is the draw at 3.65 given 15 of the teams’ combined 34 games have ended all square so far this season, including four of Burnley’s seven on the road.
Significantly, Leeds have lost just one of their 11 games against sides outside the top seven and they’ve already drawn with Newcastle, Everton and Brentford, not to mention the reverse fixture at Turf Moor (1-1).
Tense affair in store?
In terms of goals, Leeds’ games usually deliver and that struggling defence has helped ensure that all four of their games in December featured at least four goals – over 3.5 here is a 3.211/5 chance.
However, I can this this being more of a struggle for both teams and the importance of the result may result in a tense affair.
I can definitely see Burnley setting out to nullify the home threat and edge their way to victory so under 2.5 goals makes some appeal at odds-against.
However, that is probably one for those looking to put a multi-legged Bet Builder together.
The card markets are another solid option there – Leeds have collected the most cards in the division so far and we’ve got the strictest referee in Kevin Friend, who is averaging a whopping six yellow per game so far.
Use your head and back Tarkowski
However, my best bet for this game comes from the shots markets where 5/1 about James Tarkowski having a headed shot on target is simply too big.
Statistically, it looks more like a 2/1 chance – the Burnley defender has landed the bet in five of his 15 Premier League games this season.
But throw in the fact that Leeds have had plenty of issues defending set pieces – only Leicester, Palace and Southampton have conceded more goals from such situations this season – and continue to be forced into changes at the back and the price really looks good.
Tarkowski also managed this in last season’s equivalent fixture and looks sure to be a target for the visitors from corners and free-kicks.
Get on before the price goes.
Burnley striker Chris Wood has scored in two of his four games against former side Leeds since leaving the club in August 2017, including the Clarets’ goal earlier this campaign in the Premier League. Wood scored 24 goals in 44 games for Leeds at Elland Road in all competitions and is the still the club’s top scorer at the stadium since his debut in August 2015, coincidentally against Burnley.