Two of the pre-season favourites for promotion meet when Leeds United host Stoke City on the opening weekend of the Championship season on Sunday (16:30 BST, live on Sky Sports).
Leeds finished down in 13th last season, but the summer arrival of the mercurial Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa has raised expectations ahead of the new campaign, especially now that the club finally seem to be getting some deals over the line to improve the squad.
On Tuesday, they confirmed the permanent signing of talented forward Patrick Bamford from Middlesbrough and the loan capture of young Manchester City winger Jack Harrison. They are two of five new faces, alongside ex-Wolverhampton Wanderers full-back Barry Douglas and two Chelsea loanees: goalkeeper Jamal Blackman and midfielder Lewis Baker.
The expectation is that Leeds will sign a central defender of some description prior to next week’s deadline, and perhaps a further loanee before the end of the month, but the group that Bielsa will get to work with otherwise looks pretty much set.
The real coup of the summer was securing the signature of Bielsa, a world-renowned coach who is spoken of in glowing terms by many within the game, including Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola. Things didn’t work out well for him at Lille last season, but he is otherwise a coach who has always made a strong impression at each of the clubs he has led.
Bielsa promises aggressive attacking football married to a high press out of possession. It is a style of play that it is easy for supporters to get behind, but it is also an approach that demands a lot from his players and which requires time to implement effectively.
In truth, Leeds’ position among the favourites in the Championship promotion odds currently seems to be based more on hope than reality given the competitiveness of the division. Bielsa and Leeds are sure to prove an entertaining pairing but immediate success is not a foregone conclusion.
Stoke’s promotion chances are built on more solid foundations. They are back in the second tier after a decade in the Premier League, and have used their financial advantage to add a couple of known quantities at Championship level to a squad that would already have been one of the better ones in the division.
Benik Afobe never really got going in the top flight with Bournemouth, but has proved himself to be a decent goalscorer in the Championship, while Tom Ince scored 26 goals and provided 14 assists in two seasons at Derby County prior to his less successful spell with Huddersfield in the Premier League. Another summer signing, Oghenekaro Etebo, showed well for Nigeria at the World Cup.
They will be coached by Gary Rowett, who moved to the club after leading Derby County to sixth in the Championship last season. He is a solid operator at this level and should provide the steady hand Stoke need to lead them back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. He has admitted that one of his key jobs is to restore confidence following a relegation campaign in which Stoke lost by three or more goals on eight occasions.
Pre-season results have been poor, but Stoke are still worthy of their position as the bookies’ favourites in both the title-win and promotion markets. They have plenty of experience, a decently balanced squad and some good-quality attacking options. A failure to challenge for automatic promotion would not reflect kindly on the well-rated Rowett.
Leeds will come out fast on Sunday, get Elland Road rocking and seek to take advantage of any lingering confidence issues in the Stoke ranks. It is likely to be fast-paced and competitive match, but both sides still have plenty of fine-tuning to do and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if it was an encounter higher on incident and chances than outright quality.
It is difficult to accurately predict the victor, but goals are all but guaranteed.