Javi Gracia goes deep as he plots Leeds survival mission

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It’s been nearly two months since Javi Gracia first stepped into a Leeds tracksuit, but in his adopted city he remains an unknown.

“I don’t have time for anything outside of football,” says the caretaker manager tasked with saving Leeds from relegation. “I spend 12 hours a day at the training ground and, apart from talking to my family on the phone and watching football on television, the rest is having dinner and sleeping in the hotel. I don’t relax. I live stressed; I feel the stress inside.

It all explains why Roy Hodgson would appear to be a much more qualified West Yorkshire guide than Gracia. As the Spaniard devoted himself to honing his latest game plan on Sunday morning, the Crystal Palace interim manager was photographed spending the hours before kick-off at Elland Road exploring Leeds city centre.

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Shortly after 4.00pm, Hodgson celebrated the brilliantly choreographed Palace 5-1 win with typical modesty. “All of us coaches are conductors,” said the 75-year-old. “We know the music, we know all the notes, but the musicians have to play the melody.”

Unfortunately for Gracia, a damaging second half as Leeds conceded four goals involved them like the occupants of an orchestra pit suffering collective freeze. No amount of burning the midnight oil by the 52-year-old could have prevented an apparent psychological breakdown. “We looked like a boxer who had been punched,” said the former Watford, Valencia and Al Sadd manager. “It was difficult to manage.”

With eight league games left – the first against Liverpool at Elland Road on Monday night – and Leeds in relegation trouble, Jesse Marsch’s successor knows he is occupying fragile territory.

Prior to Palace’s disruptive visit, Leeds had taken 10 points from their six games since Gracia joined and with Marsch’s ultra-aggressive pressing tactics having undergone sensible modifications, there was a feeling that a reasonable measure of control in field had replaced a poorly disguised chaos.

Although Leeds beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 at home on 4 April, things started to go wrong three days earlier during a 4-1 defeat at Arsenal. It seems no coincidence that Leeds have conceded 10 goals in the three games since Austria defender Max Wöber suffered a hamstring injury.

January’s £10m buyout from RB Salzburg turned into a hugely welcome parting gift from Marsch, who pushed hard to recruit the 25-year-old. When fit, Wöber’s reassuring presence in left central defense has bolstered Leeds’ rearguard considerably and the news that he may be sufficiently recovered to be on the bench against Liverpool has brightened Gracia’s horizon.

Leeds, however, are likely to be without US central midfielder Tyler Adams, who is arguably even more influential, until the summer after his recent hamstring surgery. A lot could hinge on whether Adam Forshaw, the clever but injury-prone midfielder, can stay fit long enough to remind everyone why he was once on the verge of Gareth Southgate’s England squad. “Adam is returning to full fitness after a long injury,” says Gracia. “We don’t have many central midfield options so that’s good news.”

With Fulham, Bournemouth, Manchester City and West Ham away and visits from Leicester, Newcastle and Tottenham on the way, Leeds’ fixture list looks a little less rosy. “We believe we can stand it,” says Gracia. “But Liverpool are a crucial match; we have to give everything. Liverpool are very dangerous but it’s important to be strong in this difficult moment.”

The resulting need to project confidence explains why a coach sacked by Al Sadd last June despite winning the Qatar League internalizes his stress. “Javi is very calm and practical,” says Wöber. “He and Jesse are different personalities. Jesse was very excited, very close to the team.

“Javi is more professional but, on the pitch, a relegation battle is a matter of life and death. I’ve never been there before, but you learn a lot about football and about yourself.”

Through it all, the San Francisco-based 49ers Enterprises is nearing the point where it will finally decide whether to complete a long-discussed and potentially transformative takeover of Leeds. That takeover could ease the start of the currently delayed but badly needed rebuilding work on the increasingly dated Elland Road, but there are genuine fears that relegation could foreshadow an unwelcome moment of sliding doors, with 49ers Enterprises walking away.

Conversely, survival would enable them to maximize the record £189m turnover revealed in Leeds’ latest accounts, which thanks to the excellent commercial work of chief executive, Angus Kinnear, already eclipses those commanded by most rivals above outside the top six of the Premier League.

As the club approaches a major intersection that threatens to prove infinitely more dangerous than the network of complicated motorway junctions surrounding Elland Road, it’s no wonder Gracia has yet to familiarize herself properly with her new habitat.

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