Pep Guardiola has won 27 of his last 28 games but has rarely looked happier this season than after a draw.
When Manchester City were held 1-1 at Elland Road in October, he was left marvelling at the breathless entertainment a match of relentless attacking produced. The scoreline scarcely told the story. The total of 35 shots was a greater indication of the drama.
A few weeks ago, after beating Everton in the FA Cup, he reflected: “Leeds is the worst opponent we can play between Champions League [games]: the worst.”
Leeds’ relentless running means City will scarcely have the chance to take it easy ahead of Wednesday’s rematch with Borussia Dortmund. Some think that beating Leeds in impressive fashion was the beginning of the end for Frank Lampard: his Chelsea team covered 112km and became the first side to make more sprints than Leeds, but it seemed to take a physical toll in the following weeks. Their results suffered.
Guardiola has long known what to expect in Saturday's reunion with one of his managerial heroes, Marcelo Bielsa.
City’s last two domestic matches have been against Everton and Leicester, accomplished sides who normally have their own attacking objectives. Each played 5-3-2, camped behind the ball and challenged City to break them down. “Leeds will be completely opposite, that will be completely different,” Guardiola reflected last week.
As Bielsa put it, in his inimitably impenetrable rhetoric: “Both teams’ aims are accentuated in creativity and that helps in building a good spectacle.”
In their October meeting, it was Guardiola who resorted to making defensive changes, bringing on Fernandinho for Riyad Mahrez to try to stem a Leeds tide. His ability to alter his team has been a reason why City have prospered in such a crammed fixture list.
With a maximum of 11 points required to become champions, City have the option of rotating. But with only one more league game until May – a consequence of their prowess in cup competitions – there is the chance the gap at the top could narrow.
With the option to bring in players such as Aymeric Laporte, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Fernandinho, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, Guardiola may try and save the legs of some of those earmarked for key jobs in Germany.
“To play in a team like this is not enough to be good,” said Bielsa, sounding unsympathetic. “You have to retain that competitive spirit every three days.”
And they need to retain their running power, with Bielsa warning: “We always aim for the team to run to its maximum possibilities.”
The ambition in Leeds’ blueprint is not just apparent in the distance they cover. Only three teams have enjoyed a majority share of possession against City this season: Liverpool and Chelsea, in emphatic home defeats, and Leeds.
Bielsa will be without Jack Harrison, the winger who is ineligible because he is on loan from City, who has improved in each season under his tutelage. Guardiola trusts him with Harrison. He will relish a chance to pit his wits against a mentor. He would rather it were not now.