Leeds restore pride in defeat
LEEDS UNITED ultimately lost this tie but, along the way, Simon Grayson’s charismatic League One pace-setters will surely have gained a whole load of new friends. If last night was a throwback to compelling contests of yesterday when Leeds, and not just Liverpool, were major football powers in the land there was none of the gratuitous snarling or snide tackling of old from the men in white.
Instead Grayson’s team forced a consistently high tempo while passing crisply and could consider themselves unfortunate to go out to David Ngog’s second-half winner.
Robert Snodgrass, the Leeds winger, was one of several home players to excel on a night when considerable pride was restored to Elland Road.
Rafael Benitez, however, may have cause to reflect that his huge squad is worryingly shallow.
Liverpool’s manager made nine changes to his starting line-up from the side that won at West Ham on Saturday but took the precaution of bringing on Steven Gerrard for the closing stages as the Merseysiders clung on to their fourth-round place.
Anyone dropping in on Elland Road after spending the last few years on another planet might have supposed this was an all-English Champions League night.
With virtually every seat taken and the decibel level ear-splitting, the sole clue that Leeds are actually in League One these days came courtesy of a few defiant chants of: “We’re not famous anymore.”
Leeds twice gave their Premier League visitors early frights. First Snodgrass dodged Andrea Dossena, advanced to the byline and floated an inviting deep cross in Michael Doyle’s direction. No matter that the ensuing header was not quite up to scratch and drifted wide, Jamie Carragher had been caught wrong-footed.
Shortly afterwards Diego Cavalieri, Liverpool’s goalkeeper last night, was forced to pick the ball out of his net but Jermaine Beckford’s goalbound flick from Lubomir Michalik’s header was disallowed for an offside against Luciano Becchio.
Benitez’s revamped side were living a little dangerously and the Liverpool manager’s decision to pack his midfield courtesy of a 4-5-1 formation with Ngog as the lone striker hardly seemed vindicated.
Liverpool’s passing radar began to go awry and Javier Mascherano struggled to impose himself in central midfield.
The home goalkeeper, Shane Higgs, had surprisingly little to do early on, bar watch an Ngog effort sail wide and comfortably deal with a shot from Ryan Babel – deployed on the right – aimed straight at his midriff.
Leeds were playing with the confidence of a side which had won the previous 15 home games and Beckford’s devastating change of pace permitted him to conjure a chance for Snodgrass, whose strike was palmed to safety.
Dossena, though, will not forget Snodgrass in a hurry; the left-back really struggled against the winger.
It took a set piece for Benitez’s team to muster their only serious first-half threat, Higgs doing well to repel Albert Riera’s header. Indeed Beckford might have scored on the counter-attack early in the second half when, after out-stripping Sotirios Kyrgiakos, he lost composure at the vital moment and scuffed his shot.
By now visiting frustration was manifesting itself and Mascherano seemed fortunate to escape punishment after appearing to raise his hands in an off-the-ball altercation before Carragher was required to block Beckford’s goalbound strike.
Mascherano, however, redeemed himself by volleying a pass into the penalty area where the hitherto quiet Ngog took one touch, turned Michalik and shot low into the bottom corner.
If only Beckford could ally a little of the Frenchman’s poise to that coruscating pace.
LEEDS UNITED:Higgs, Crowe, Kisnorbo, Michalik, Hughes (Kilkenny 78), Howson, Doyle (Showunmi 88), Johnson, Snodgrass, Beckford, Becchio (Grella 81). Subs Not Used: Ankergren, Naylor, Prutton, Robinson. Booked: Crowe.
LIVERPOOL:Cavalieri, Degen (Johnson 71), Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Dossena, Aurelio, Mascherano, Spearing, Riera, Babel (Skrtel 90), Ngog (Gerrard 78). Subs Not Used: Reina, Torres, Voronin, Plessis. Booked: Kyrgiakos.
Referee:Alan Wiley (Staffordshire).