Cambridge United v Leeds United: Opportunity knocks for Whites squad in FA Cup-tie at Cambridge

Stuart Dallas

Stuart Dallas

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KNOCKOUT football has been no hindrance to Leeds United. On the contrary, it has dovetailed with their league commitments beautifully.

Garry Monk’s line-ups in the League Cup always deferred to the importance of the Championship but the results produced by his players gave it equal merit.

The club’s head coach will do likewise in the FA Cup, fielding what some would call a weakened team in the third round at Cambridge United tonight, but Monk is confident enough in his squad to expect a win regardless.

Even against Liverpool, in the last eight of the EFL Cup, his starting side omitted Chris Wood, Pontus Jansson, Pablo Hernandez and Liam Bridcutt.

He was still aggrieved to leave Anfield with a 2-0 defeat.

In that particular week Monk had to find the balance between Liverpool away on a Tuesday night and Aston Villa at home the following Saturday.

The days ahead require similar management with a meeting with Derby County at Elland Road awaiting Leeds on Friday.

It is a key fixture between two teams with designs on the play-offs, at a stage of the season where matches of that nature matter. If Monk prioritises Derby over Cambridge then he will not hear much argument about it.

But for him and his players the habit of winning is ingrained and agreeable. Stuart Dallas, Leeds’ Northern Ireland winger, cannot see how defeat to a League Two side in the FA Cup tonight would help United in the long run. His answer was instinctive when he was asked if Cambridge felt like an important game.

“Of course it is,” he said. “Every game’s important at this club and with the run we’re on, we want to keep winning. Winning brings confidence.

“Everybody would love a run in the FA Cup and we’re no different. We’ll go there tonight, look to be professional and get the job done. We’ll give them respect but if we do what we’re good at then we’ll have no problem.

“It’s not going to be an easy game. They’ve been on a good run in their own league and they’ll be hard to beat. We can’t go there and expect them to roll over. We’ve got to earn the right to play but if we do that then there’s no doubt we’ll get a positive result. We can’t look forward to Derby until we get this one out of the road.”

Dallas is likely to be one of the players who starts at the Abbey Stadium as Monk makes full use of the resources available to him.

The third-round tie, televised live on BT Sport, might also throw up opportunities for the likes of Marco Silvestri, Marcus Antonsson and Liam Cooper, all of whom sat in the wings as a settled line-up moved up the Championship table before Christmas.

Dallas’ own season has been underwhelming; slow to start after his appearance at Euro 2016 with Northern Ireland and affected further by a calf strain suffered during a World Cup qualifier in October.

He was sacrificed by Monk to make way for top scorer Chris Wood in last week’s 3-0 win over Rotherham United and Hadi Sacko and Souleymane Doukara have usurped him as Monk’s preferred wingers. Doukara’s rise has been as unexpected as Dallas’ post-Euros form.

“I always want to play as much as I can,” Dallas said. “Hopefully the gaffer gives me a chance (tonight).

“He changed it up a bit last week but we’ve got a lot of games in quick succession and everyone’s ready to go. My last couple of games weren’t my best and it’s been shown that you have to be on top of your game all the time now. There’s so much competition in the squad.

“The Euros took a bit out of me. I didn’t really have a rest and I wasn’t my usual self. I had a conversation with the manager and he did what was best for me at the time (by leaving Dallas out of United’s line-up). I came back in, was doing okay but then I got injured in one of the qualifiers. It wasn’t ideal.

“I still think there’s a lot more to come from me and I don’t think this season I’ve played at my best. But if we’re successful then I’m not really too bothered about myself.”

Competition will increase before the end of the month if Monk gets his way in the transfer market.

United’s head coach plans to sign a striker and is also looking to bring another winger to the club.

Dallas said new signings would be “good for us” and claimed the squad at Leeds were “an easy group to come into”.

“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “No matter who is it, a club always wants to improve.”

Improvement has been Monk’s fixation in his seven months in charge and in the run-up to the turn of the year it grew in speed.

The League Cup provided his first win in the job away at Fleetwood Town in August and the club’s run to the quarter-finals fostered optimism about their prospects in the Championship.

Leeds’ visit to Cambridge, their first competitive fixture there since 1984, is part of the same process.

The FA Cup was the only competition in which United made any inroads last season. Under Steve Evans they reached the fifth round before losing to Watford at Vicarage Road, beaten by a Scott Wootton own goal.

The play-offs were long gone by then and Leeds’ owner, Massimo Cellino, was preparing himself for another change of head coach.

Monk made significant changes to the squad before this season began, many of which have paid off impressively, but some of his players were already on the books, Dallas among them. The difference in form and mood is marked and Leeds have quickly forgotten the results in August and September which briefly threatened Monk’s job.

“The atmosphere’s good,” Dallas said. “It always has been good but whenever you win games it brings confidence. We know what our targets are and we know how good we are. When things weren’t going well we still believed that what we were doing was the right thing to do. The manager believed in us from day one. He told us he knew how good we were and that we needed to believe in ourselves.

“Maybe last season we didn’t believe in ourselves or believe that we could do something. We’re pulling in one direction now and we all want the same thing, which is to be successful.

“Whoever he puts on the pitch (tonight) will give 100 per cent. Hopefully we’ll progress to the next round.”

OUT TO AUSTRIA: Leeds United head coach Thomas Christiansen. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

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