Aston Villa boss Dean Smith has hailed Leeds United as “the fittest team in the league” ahead of their clash on Friday evening.
The hosts have made their best start to a top flight campaign in 90 years with impressive wins against Sheffield United, Fulham, Liverpool and most recently Leicester City. Victory over Leeds at Villa Park would see them overtake Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton at the top of the table.
Marcelo Bielsa’s new boys have also had an impressive start and currently sit in the top half of the table despite a recent defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Whites have earned plaudits for their high-pressing, attacking style of football and Smith is backing them to keep their Premier League status.
“I’ve seen all five of their games so far and they’re very competitive. They’ll win more games than they lose this season – that’s for sure,” Smith told AVFC.
“I don’t see them being in a relegation scrap at the end of the season. They’re the fittest team in the league and every team that has played against them so far has actually got their top numbers during that game.
“There’s a certain work ethic there but there’s also a lot of quality there as well,” Smith added.
Villa and Leeds will meet for the first time since their infamous game two seasons ago in the EFL Championship.
The 1-1 draw in 2018/19 was filled with controversy after Leeds decided to play on and score despite Jonathan Kodjia being on the floor injured.
Smith’s ‘total respect’ for Bielsa
With tempers flaring, and Anwar El Ghazi wrongly seeing red, Bielsa instructed his side to allow Villa to score an equaliser in the penultimate match of the season.
The Villans would go on to seal promotion with a 2-1 victory over Frank Lampard’s Derby County, who eliminated Leeds in the semi-finals, at Wembley.
Heartache would turn into jubilation as Leeds won the 2019/20 EFL Championship to gain promotion from the English second-tier to end 16 years of hurt.
Despite previous bad blood, Smith – who has faced Bielsa on three occasions, the other two being as Brentford boss – revealed his delight at the Argentinian’s accomplishment.
“I’ve got total respect and admiration for him and his team and what they’ve done.
“They came close in his first season and then won the league last season with excellent football. I’ve got nothing but respect for him and his team.
“We’d qualified for the play-offs, as had Leeds. They still had an outside chance of getting automatic.
“There was a lot made of the incident, but there wasn’t once it had been done from myself and Marcelo. We just felt it was the right decision.
“A lot of people forget that just before, one of their players had gone down, we were attacking and Conor Hourihane put the ball out. He felt it was the right thing to do, and we did.
“Obviously when Jonathan Kodjia went down we expected that to be reciprocated, it wasn’t, and we all know the rest. We were very thankful Marcelo felt he wanted his team to give us the goal back for the integrity of the game.
“You certainly don’t always see that sort of thing. There was an awful lot of emotion on the pitch, from our bench, because of what had happened four minutes previous. It takes cool heads in those moments and he (Bielsa) certainly showed that.”
By Joe Hewlett (@JoeBoxing365)