liverpool 2-0 leeds united: close commitmentBack
Who would be a football manager, when it comes to the League Cup?
The League Cup is too complicated a competition, requiring too many fine line decisions, for it to make for an enjoyable sesh on FM2017.
Garry Monk played the early rounds with devil may care abandon, experimenting against Fleetwood, Luton, Blackburn and eventually Norwich; even against Norwich, there wasn’t much at stake, so Marco Silvestri could play in goal, Tyler Denton and Lewie Coyle took turns at full back, and none of it would really matter.
Except they won, and Leeds United found themselves at Anfield, for the first time in thirteen years, between Liverpool FC and two legs, with a real prospect after those three games of Wembley.
Stick, or twist? Even the scheduling doesn’t help. This was a quarter final, but the league season has barely settled into shape yet. Leeds are near the top of their league ladder, but is it real? Will the coming games leave United seriously thinking about the play-offs, or might rejecting this match to concentrate on the league look foolish if the season peters out to mid-table? There’s not even any serious fixture congestion yet; and the final, should Leeds get there, will be over and done by the end of March. Plenty of time to win the Championship after that.
Monk, in the end, followed rules of honour and common sense. Marco Silvestri didn’t get much reward for his heroics in the penalty shoot out against Norwich; benched, to watch Robert Green chuck the ball to Newcastle United, he was eventually given the honour of goalkeeping at Anfield.
Elsewhere, the changes seemed to be about fitness, and players being given a chance to prove themselves. Chris Wood came back from New Zealand international duty to run himself into the ground against Newcastle and work hard again at Rotherham; Souleymane Doukara has been in form out on the wings and in all sorts of places, so it made sense to give them both breaks of different kinds.
Luke Ayling has worked hard in every game since he arrived, but he only arrived to tide us over until Gaetano Berardi was fit, and how here was the handsome soldier himself, all brooding insistence and desperate for his shirt back. Across the back four, Charlie Taylor was offered the chance to show his Premier League credentials.
Stuart Dallas was another seeking fitness; while with Pontus Jansson and Pablo Hernandez unavailable, Liam Cooper and Kemar Roofe had to go out and get on with it.
Everyone got on with their jobs well in the first half, if not quite fulfilling the criteria for a cup classic. Liverpool, of course, had selection issues of their own that meant this was not a test against the very best of the Premier League, but their players are a lot better than ours, and it showed for large parts of the first half. But so, too, did the quality in Leeds.
While Liverpool took the opportunities for ball retention and attacking incision they could expect against opposition from a division low, Leeds’ midfield of Ronaldo Vieira and Eunan O’Kane — who then gave way injured to Kalvin Phillips — ready to seize on any mistake. Roofe looked confident, willing to believe that tricks and brave passes might work; Doukara worked hard, and looked a world away from the player we despaired of last season. Hadi Sacko buzzed around on the edges of offside and tracking back, sometimes with Phillips, sometimes giving the youngster an encourage slap around the chops.
Defence was less secure, without Jansson, and it was almost like last season without him; mistakes in possession, followed either by a stunning cat like save from Silvestri, or an incommunicative scramble sparked by Silvestri that very nearly made us look very daft.
Overall, though, Leeds were steady and not less threatening than Liverpool. Half-time brought another injury blow, as Cooper limped off and Ayling came into central defence, and with an eye on the original question of what line-up to play, the League Cup does seem to eating our players.
It didn’t impede Leeds’ progress. With the ball bouncing loose and Simon Mignolet wandering, Roofe pulled out a curling shot of pure FIFA that deserved string bag, not stiff post. With Wood replacing Dallas Leeds were taking the game to Liverpool, Sacko exciting and confusing (to us, never mind the Liverpool defence), Bartley heading close from a corner, Roofe having another shot, and Jurgen Klopp bringing on a school prefect. When Liverpool did attack, they came up against two tight lines of Leeds United defenders, attackers, midfielders, reserves, friends and hangers on; anyone that could be smuggled into a white bodyfit Kappa top was between Liverpool and the goal.
Then they hit the post and it was like reality hitting Leeds United; a reminder of just what game, and which team, we were playing. And then they scored.
And yes, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross was a tease, but it also put the ball right into Marco Silvestri’s zone of indecision, where all he could do was stare at it like a cat stares at a bird through a window, until Divock Origi clipped it into the net. Perhaps it’s harsh, given the whole Norwich thing and that one first half save, but you wonder if Rob Green or another wouldn’t have just clattered the whole situation out of there, ball, attacker, defenders and all.
From that point proud optimism gave way to League Cup fatalism. Klopp dangled a treat in front of us in the shape of little Jim Milner as a substitute, but then Milner put his benchcoat back on and the school prefect put the ball into the net for 2-0. Then Milner was allowed on, but it wasn’t really the moment for a happy reunion anymore.
And the game changed permanently from a collection of moments Leeds fans might treasure, to one of those frustrating mid-stage League Cup nights when two under-strength partners refuse to be romantic. Wood put the ball in the net but was offside, and there was a chances for Sacko, and ‘We’re Leeds and we’re proud of it’ and ‘Leeds are going up’ were the loudest songs in Anfield; and, finally, ‘Garry, Garry Monk.’
But we’ll only find out what it was all worth after playing Aston Villa, Brighton, Reading, Brentford and the rest. And we should look forward to those games, because the performance at Anfield was committed and close and positive in ways that the performance against Newcastle the other week was not; and because we don’t have this game, and the impossible romance of Wembley or even Europe to follow it, to look forward to anymore.
Back to the unromantic slog of the Football League Championship, then; at least until the FA Cup starts in January. Because Leeds United are definitely going to win that.